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We hope Walmart’s new education program inspires other employers to take action

With more than 1.3 million employees, Walmart is the nation’s largest private employer. And when Walmart takes on a challenge, people notice.

Today, the retail giant announced a new employee education and training program, which is designed to help early-career Walmart and Sam’s Club employees secure education beyond high school. Working with Guild Education, Walmart’s full-time and part-time employees will have access to a variety of colleges and universities, degree programs, coaching, and financial support.

At Lumina Foundation, we are proud to partner with Walmart to study the outcomes of this program. Lumina focuses exclusively on helping the nation achieve a goal of 60 percent of working-age adults having college degrees, certificates, certifications or other quality credentials. The sheer scale of Walmart’s new program has the potential to help achieve this goal by 2025. We were drawn to the way in which the program design was driven by employee needs.

Lumina is working with Walmart and an analytic firm to design a study that will benefit both the company and other employers interested in supporting employee education. Lumina is interested in exploring how these investments will pay off for the company in improved retention, promotion, and public perception, and for employees in the form of promotions and pay increases. The foundation’s existing research on this topic suggests Walmart and its employees could see significant returns.

We also want to help companies that are considering education and training programs for employees understand their design options, including whether degree programs should be contextualized or competency-based and whether success coaching can help people finish their degrees as well as affect a company’s bottom line.

One exciting aspect of Walmart’s program is its emphasis on ensuring that work-based training through its Academies is eligible for college credit. A quarter of a million workers have moved through Walmart’s Academies, making it one of the nation’s largest employer-supported training programs. These workers gain the knowledge and skills they need to become better associates and managers in areas such as sales, management, and merchandising.

Some of these are skills that college students might acquire in business and marketing courses. Rather than requiring working adults to sit through material they already know, Walmart and its education partners acknowledge that learning can happen anywhere and that all worthwhile learning should count toward a post-high school credential. To date, Walmart’s associates have been awarded the equivalent of more than $210 million in college credit through the Academies. That is smart business — for the company and for employees.

Employees who take advantage Walmart’s new program will have access to degree programs that are contextualized around their work. Research has shown that adults, particularly those who juggle work, learning and other responsibilities, seek relevant learning experiences that directly apply to their lives. Walmart’s partnership includes the University of Florida, Brandman University, and Bellevue University, all of which will work with the retailer to tailor degree programs to employee needs.

Guild Education will provide every Walmart employee who signs up with an academic coach to support them from application through graduation. Walmart also is stepping up financially, covering virtually all tuition and fee expenses for coursework and ensuring that employees can complete their degrees free of debt.

Ultimately, the extent to which employees earn degrees will define the success of Walmart’s program. The company has spent more than $2 billion in the last two years to advance its workers through training and enhanced wages and benefits. Walmart’s new program will not only provide many more workers with access to a college education — it will provide workers with knowledge and skills for informed citizenship and success in a global economy.

We hope Walmart’s program inspires other employers to take action — its influence extends far beyond its 1.3 million employees and its more than 5,000 stores. The company’s willingness to share its story, its successes, and its challenges with outsiders is laudable. We look forward to sharing what we learn.