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Walmart upgrades schooling benefit

Retailer will pay for tuition, books by Nathan Owens | July 28, 2021 at 2:15 a.m.
FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2021, file photo, shoppers walk along the sidewalk of the Walmart Supercenter in Bentonvile. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

Walmart said Tuesday that it will pay 100% of college tuition and books for its workers, allowing them to earn degrees or learn trade skills without going into burdensome debt.

About 1.5 million part-time and full-time Walmart and Sam's Club associates will become eligible for this perk through the retailer's Live Better U education program.

Currently, workers pay a daily $1 fee to participate in the program. Walmart plans to remove that requirement starting Aug. 16, and foot the bill for workers who want to further their education.

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Major employers have offered tuition reimbursement programs for years, usually for white collar workers who want to improve their skill set.

What Walmart, Amazon, Target and others are offering is a higher-education plan geared toward low-wage workers who may not have a college degree.

Expensive tuition and the loans to pay for a college degree are barriers for many people. Several employers have formed partnerships with universities so their workers can participate in classes to work toward a degree, without taking on debt. Analysts call their efforts a goodwill move.

"We are creating a path of opportunity for our associates to grow their careers at Walmart, so they can continue to build better lives for themselves and their families," Lorraine Stomski, senior vice president of Learning and Leadership at Walmart, said in a written statement.

As part of its ongoing education effort, Walmart committed itself to invest nearly $1 billion over the next five years in career training and development to improve and retain its workforce.

Thousands of Walmart workers have earned degrees since the Live Better U program began in 2018. Nearly 28,000 people participated in the program this summer.

"This investment is another way we can support our associates to pursue their passion and purpose while removing the barriers that too often keep adult working learners from obtaining degrees," Stomski said.

In addition to the schools Walmart works with in its educational program, the retailer is poised to add four more, including: Johnson & Wales University; the University of Arizona; the University of Denver; and Pathstream, a company that offers technology education programs through university partnerships.

In today's business climate, companies are searching for different ways to recruit workers without wage increases; offering to pay tuition and books is one way to do that, said Brian Yarborough, a consumer-goods analyst with Edward Jones.

When asked if workers may feel a sense of obligation to continue their career at Walmart after receiving a certificate or degree through the program, Yarborough was skeptical.

"I doubt if someone's working in one of the stores, checking people out and they go and get a college degree, they're probably not sticking around in the store," he said. "It just depends."

For Walmart, the program can be a tool to help workers on the floor move up the corporate ladder. In a news release, the retailer said that when workers enroll in its program and earn a certificate or degree, "they take important steps toward creating a long-term career within the Walmart ecosystem."

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