Wal-Mart partners with online school to offer college credit to workers

FILE - This undated file photo provided by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., shows the company's sign in front of their Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced a program Thursday, June 3, 2010, in which its workers can receive college credit from the online American Public University and receive a tuition discount from the school.(AP Photo/Wal-Mart Stores Inc., File) NO SALES
FILE - This undated file photo provided by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., shows the company's sign in front of their Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced a program Thursday, June 3, 2010, in which its workers can receive college credit from the online American Public University and receive a tuition discount from the school.(AP Photo/Wal-Mart Stores Inc., File) NO SALES (Anonymous - AP)

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By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

FAYETTEVILLE, ARK. -- Here's a new way to look at Wal-Mart: institution of higher learning.

Under a program announced Thursday, employees of Wal-Mart and Sam's Club will be able to receive college credit for performing their jobs, including such tasks as loading trucks and ringing up purchases. Workers could earn as much as 45 percent of the credits needed for an associate or bachelor's degree while on the job.

The credits are earned through the Internet-based American Public University, with headquarters in Charles Town, W.Va., and administrative offices in Manassas.

"We want to provide you with more ways and faster ways to succeed with us," Eduardo Castro-Wright, head of Wal-Mart's U.S. division, told 4,000 employees during the company's annual meeting. The program is designed to encourage more workers to climb the corporate ladder. Although Wal-Mart says about 70 percent of its managers begin as hourly employees, it estimates that about half of its employees do not hold college degrees.

Jaymes Murphy, 24, a salesman from Victoria, Tex., who was at the annual meeting, said he tried for several years to juggle work and school with little success. He would attend class from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then sprint to his job as a cashier at Wal-Mart, working from 3 p.m. to midnight. He eventually quit school but he still dreams of getting a bachelor's degree in political science or communications.

"It gets stressful," he said. The program would allow him to "not have to worry about sacrificing one or the other."

The credits will be given for Wal-Mart's own training as well as on-the-job experience. Many of the courses for which Wal-Mart workers can get credit are business-related, such as retail shipping and receiving, ethics, commercial safety and finance fundamentals.

Those credits could be applied to a degree in retail management from APU or may be used to fulfill elective requirements for other majors. Students would need to complete additional courses outside of their jobs to complete a degree. So in classic Wal-Mart fashion, the company negotiated a 15 percent tuition reduction on other courses at APU in exchange for handling some administrative and marketing duties.

Many colleges allow students to receive credit for work experience, such as internships. APU officials said they have worked closely with the military to develop courses and award credits, but this is the first time they have partnered with a company to create a comprehensive program.

For their work to qualify as credit, full-time employees must be in the job for a year and receive satisfactory reviews, while part-timers must put in three years and get a positive review. About 200,000 workers are eligible for the program, and Wal-Mart said additional positions will be added each quarter.

"People will surprise you if you give them opportunities," said Tom Mars, chief administrative officer at Wal-Mart. "The single biggest competitive advantage we have . . . is our associates."

Daniel Soto of Hardeeville, S.C., works full time at Wal-Mart as a zone manager supervisor, lending a hand in several departments. He had to give up college to work, but said he could see some of his duties translating to academia, such as the algebraic equations he uses to figure out how much merchandise will fit on a shelf or how much of a product to order.

"I do math all day at Wal-Mart," he said.

Wal-Mart is the country's largest private employer with 1.4 million workers, and the partnership will probably provide a significant boost for APU. The college was organized in 1991 as the online American Military University and has since expanded to enroll nearly 71,000 students during the first quarter, up 42 percent from the previous year.

American Public University is one of a growing number of so-called career colleges that operate on a for-profit model, rather than as state institutions or private foundations. APU's parent company is publicly traded and its reported revenue jumped 43 percent to $47.3 million during the most recent quarter, while profit rose 46 percent to $7.6 million.

Mars said the company has recently improved opportunities for workers to be promoted. It removed a ban on promoting employees to store managers within the same store and created a mentorship program that ties some executive bonuses to how they advance the careers of other workers.

Cari Prill, a department manager in Bad Axe, Mich., said the flexibility of Wal-Mart's program is appealing. She has spent seven years at the company and would probably qualify for the credits. Although she once thought about studying pre-law, now she is interested in business management and human resources, especially if her Wal-Mart experience will count toward the degree.

"Money and time go hand in hand," she said.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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