Jeri Urian had the smarts to finish near the top of her 2001 Pennsville Memorial High School graduating class. But when classmates headed to college, she stayed home to join the family business, a South New Jersey video store.
Urian admits she wasn’t exactly fired up about continuing her education. But she was also put off by nagging concerns about the high cost of college.
She managed the store until it closed in 2013, re-entering the workforce shortly thereafter in a Discover Financial Group call center in New Castle, Del., directly across the Delaware River from her old high school. There, in addition to earning a paycheck, Urian took advantage of a pilot program that covers 100 percent of college tuition for Discover employees.
For Urian, the company’s College for America program eliminated the barrier that had once separated her from higher education.
“It was a no-brainer,” she says. “I had no excuse for not getting a degree.”
College for America is one of several initiatives that help Discover employees develop the talent the company needs to stay competitive. Its centerpiece, the Education Assistance Program (EAP), covers up to $5,000 of the education expenses incurred by Discover employees.
A 2016 study, funded by Lumina Foundation and conducted by Accenture Financial Services, details the far-reaching advantages generated by the EAP. The report revealed a return of $1.44 for every dollar that Discover invested in employee education.
“It was always a popular program that provided a unique benefit for our employees,” says Jon Kaplan, vice president for training and development. “But we really didn’t understand the extent of those benefits until the analysis.”
Kaplan, a former high school teacher in Oakland, Calif., says the EAP has been especially beneficial for entry-level employees at Discover’s four call centers—the one in Delaware, plus facilities in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and New Albany, Ohio, near Columbus.
The EAP has helped 75 percent of call center workers, typically hired with little or no education after high school, earn college degrees. Those degrees translate into wages that are, on average, 40 percent higher than those of Discover employees who don’t take advantage of the program. EAP student-employees also are 21 percent more likely to receive a promotion.
Adriana Cavazos checks all those boxes.
She came to a Phoenix call center job as a community college student who needed the income to supplement her financial aid package. The job helped her complete an associate degree program in criminal science, but then her education stalled.
“I wanted to go back to school, but I was on the fence because it was so expensive,” Cavazos said.
Discover’s EAP helped her hop off that fence and pick up a bachelor’s in criminal science from Arizona State University. Now 26, she has since returned to ASU for a graduate degree in the same field. Not coincidentally, Cavazos also has moved through the ranks from the call center to a position as a senior associate for compliance in Discover’s Financial Intelligence Unit, the division that monitors money laundering, credit card fraud and other misdeeds.
Without the EAP, Cavazos says, “I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it (her education) because of the student debt. I’d be paying off student loans forever.”
Urian’s career followed a similar trajectory.
“Being out of school 15 years was a little intimidating,” she recalls. “At first I didn’t know what to expect.”
Still, she had little trouble shedding the jitters. Taking advantage of a Southern New Hampshire University competency-based program that allows adult students to learn online at their own pace, Urian completed a two-year business degree in 83 days. Then, in just eight months, she earned a SNHU bachelor’s in communications.
“I wasn’t playing around,” Urian says matter-of-factly.
In keeping with the results of the Lumina/Accenture study, Urian also earned a promotion. She’s now a team leader, overseeing 20 call center employees.
“I feel like (Discover) truly cares about me,” she says. “Their investment tells me that, to the company, I am a real face and a real person.”