Going to college has always been considered a path to a good job. But for those who are concerned about soaring tuition costs, increasing student loan debt and doubts about the work-readiness of college graduates, there’s a legitimate new debt-free college path to consider. Instead of going to college to get a job, find a job that comes with college.

Over the past several years, a growing number of top employers – including Starbucks, Walmart, Disney, Discover, Papa John’s, Lowe’s, Mantech and more – have developed benefits programs for employees to obtain their college degrees from universities such as University of Florida, Arizona State University, University of Denver, Southern New Hampshire University and Purdue University Global while working. These ‘education-as-a-benefit’ programs are offered at no to very little cost to the employee – making them a true debt-free college option. And it’s an option more students will pursue as these programs grow in visibility. According to research I led last year, 74% of current parents of K-12 students and 55% of current high school students would consider the job-first, college-included pathway.

Not surprisingly, those who are most likely to be attracted to a college-included job are parents and students who see the value of learning while working and who want to avoid student loan debt. It’s not a model for everyone, of course. But neither is the traditional residential college for that matter. Debt-free college and valuable work experience in the college-included job model typically means making a trade-off with on-campus residential life and in-person classes. Nearly all of the employees enrolled in education-as-a-benefit programs are taking their college classes online – although some have options for in-person classes from regional university partners.

So far, most education-as-a-benefit programs have been aimed at working adults who are in entry-level or retail jobs as a means for employers to attract better talent, retain that talent longer and upskill their talent into better, higher-paying roles. Certainly, this will be a continued focus of these programs. But in the global war for talent, employers are increasingly learning that it’s critical to develop early talent pipelines. This is where we’ll see more education-as-a-benefit programs aimed at recruiting top-talent students directly out of high school.

What’s most intriguing about these education-as-a-benefit programs is that although you need to be a current employee to qualify, the vast majority don’t require extended employment obligations once an employee has completed their degree. In fact, many programs actively promote the idea of employees improving their job prospects elsewhere – at another employer – after obtaining their degree. If you’re wondering why an employer would do this, it’s simple: these programs are generating improvements in employee recruitment, retention and productivity that more than off-set the investments companies are making in them. Getting a college degree as an employee benefit makes a company more attractive to work for and in many high-turnover roles and industries such as retail it’s a huge advantage and cost-savings when employees stay in their jobs longer.

Seventy-percent of full-time college students already work while in school, so the idea of work and school done together is actually more common than not. And this particular point is what will make education-as-a-benefit programs a natural evolution of sorts. Many college students today work as baristas, pizza delivery staff and in various retail sales and service roles. Why not flip the script and instead of making a little money to help pay your way through college, find an employer who will pay for the whole thing while you make a little money? Working at Walmart or Starbucks during college doesn’t mean you’ll work there your entire career. But if you did move up the ranks at Walmart, for example, it could be a pretty good thing too; Walmart store managers make an average of $175,000 a year.           

Most traditional aged students will still desire a fully residential college experience, but there will be a growing and sizable number of students who will happily and readily embrace an online version of college done while working for an employer who is footing the bill. As colleges and students grapple with a global pandemic by offering an increasing array of entirely online and hybrid courses, the acceptance of and preferences for online college will undoubtedly improve. Don’t confuse the negativity about emergency distance learning during the pandemic with the very clear signals of quality coming from the professionalized, intentionally-crafted online learning world. The latest data from Strada Education Network’s Public Viewpoint survey released just two months ago is a real eye-opener: graduates of online institutions rate their experiences higher on being worth the cost, making them attractive to an employer and recommending their educational path to others.

The college-included job certainly won’t be the end of college as we know it. But it will represent a significant shift by creating a highly-viable alternative to traditional college that provides students with the value of a degree, extensive work experience and freedom from debt.



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