GEDWorks says it gives employees everything they need to prepare for and pass the GED test through a "pay as you progress" fixed price to the employer. (GED Testing Service/Youtube)

Some of the country’s major retailers and fast-food restaurants are offering employees free GED preparation and testing starting this year, tapping into a potentially large market of adults who lack a high school diploma and could greatly benefit from higher education.

The partnership with GED Testing Service includes Walmart, KFC, Taco Bell and Southeastern Grocers, which operates BI-LO, Harveys and Winn-Dixie stores.

The program is free for test-takers. The cost, about $300 per GED candidate, is funded, in most cases, by the employer. It includes online study materials, practice tests, and access to an adviser whose job it is to check in with candidates and keep them motivated and engaged in what can be a lengthy process to study for and pass the tests.

Krista Snider, Managing Director of the Louisville-based KFC Foundation, which is funding the program for KFC, said about a quarter of the fast-food company’s 125,000 employees lack a high school diploma or equivalent.

The foundation began offering a free GED program for employees two years ago. Many employees were interested but very few people made it all the way through the test, she said, because they did not have enough support. She is hopeful that the adviser and practice materials from GED Testing Service will help them reach their goals.

“GED preparation takes months. We know it’s a challenge ” she said. “Our employees are working a full-time job or, in many cases, two or three jobs,” she said. “Many of the people at KFC are primary breadwinners. They have kids and other responsibilities, so something like getting a high school equivalent is not necessarily their top priority.”

The GED was revamped in 2014. It’s now an online series of tests that’s aligned to Common Core academic standards and is more difficult to pass. It’s intended to be a better indicator of whether students are ready for college and prepared to compete in today’s workplace. It’s also more expensive than it used to be.

[The New GED: high school equivalency test gets major overhaul]

For people working in such traditionally low-paying and high turnover jobs, this kind of educational benefit can be attractive, said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“In all these companies, retention is a big problem. You want people to stay as long as you can keep them,” he said. “By providing benefits and paying attention to training, you can attract the best employees. You are saying, ‘I may not be able to put you in a manager’s job, but I will help you move along while you work for me.'”

Brian Poland, director of lifelong learning and talent development at Walmart, said the retailer does not track how many of its 1.3 million employees lack high school diplomas, and job promotion decisions are not contingent on educational attainment.

But, he said, the company offers various educational benefits, including an online program that employees can use to pursue a high school diploma. In the past, Walmart offered reimbursement for employees who took the GED test, but few took advantage of the benefit, he said.

Now that the company is covering costs up-front, and offering extra support, Poland said, more students will likely take advantage of it. In the first month since they offered the new GED program, “thousands” of employees have expressed interest, he said.