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College credit for working your job? Walmart and McDonald’s are trying it

Bonnie Boop is now a people lead at Walmart in Huntsville, Ala. She received college credit for a company training program, graduating with a bachelor's degree last year.
Andi Rice
/
for NPR
Bonnie Boop is now a people lead at Walmart in Huntsville, Ala. She received college credit for a company training program, graduating with a bachelor's degree last year.

When Walmart stopped requiring college degrees for most of its corporate jobs last year, the company confronted three deep truths about work and schooling:

A college diploma is only a proxy for what someone knows, and not always a perfect one. A degree's high cost sidelines many people. For industries dominated by workers without degrees, cultivating future talent demands a different playbook.

Some of the nation’s largest employers, including Walmart and McDonald’s, are now broaching a new frontier in higher education: convincing colleges to give retail and fast-food workers credit for what they learn on the job, counting toward a degree.

Behind the scenes, executives often paint a grander transformation of hiring, a world where your resume will rely less on titles or diplomas and act more like a passport of skills you’ve proven you have.

For now, companies and educators are only starting to chip away at one of the first steps: figuring out how much college credit a work skill is worth.

Getting credit for Walmart training

Something unusual happened to Bonnie Boop one semester.

She’d returned to college in her late 40s using Walmart’s tuition-assistance program after joining the company as a part-time stocker. In her younger years, she had gotten two associate degrees, so her children used to joke that she might as well say she’d gone to school for four years. But to her, it wasn’t the same.

“Bachelor’s degrees tend to open more doors,” Boop says. Plus, she says, she persisted for “the principle of it all.”

At Walmart, Boop stocked health and beauty aisles in the evenings after another day job. Later, she went full time and got promoted to supervise others. This required new training at “Walmart Academy”: brief, intensive courses on leadership, financial decision-making and workforce planning.

Walmart and a few other companies are working with colleges to figure out how to convert skills — or at least trainings — done at work into college credit.
Andi Rice / for NPR
/
for NPR
Walmart and a few other companies are working with colleges to figure out how to convert skills — or at least trainings — done at work into college credit.

Then one day, looking at Boop’s upcoming business-operations class at Southern New Hampshire University, which Boop attended online from Alabama, her adviser found the record showing she’d already taken the course.

“But I didn’t,” Boop says. “And she said, ‘Yes, you got credit from Walmart Academy.’ And I said, what?”

Through corporate training and certificates that convert to college credit, Walmart Academy aims to get workers as far as halfway to a college degree, the organization’s chief told NPR. Boop had done several such programs, which let her bypass two college courses.

At her rate of study, “that would have been two semesters’ worth,” Boop says. “I was like, wow!”

Studying while also holding down a job meant staying up late after her shift that ended at 11 p.m. and keeping a meticulous schedule of big school projects to do on her days off. After 2 1/2 years of this, expedited by her associate degrees, Boop watched her photo slide across the screen at the virtual graduation in December.

Wearing her cap and gown, she posed for photos with her new diploma: Bachelor of Science in business administration, with a concentration in industrial organizational psychology. Today, Boop is her store’s “people lead” overseeing more than 200 workers.

What’s in it for corporations?

Many American universities have long offered credit for corporate training by companies like Google, IBM or Microsoft. For work in retail and fast food, the process is nascent.

McDonald’s is working with several community colleges to build a path for converting on-the-job skills, like safe food handling or customer service, into credit toward degrees in culinary arts, hospitality or insurance. Walmart has over a dozen short-form certificates and 25 training courses — in tech, leadership, digital operations — that translate to credit at partner universities. The car-service chain Jiffy Lube has its own college credit program, too.

“For adults who feel like they weren’t college material, what we are able to do is say, ‘You are. And you’re doing college-level work already,’” says Amber Garrison Duncan, who runs the nonprofit Competency-Based Education Network that connects employers and higher-education institutions.

Educators hope this brings more students into the fold — expanding access to education and allowing more people to achieve better-paying, more-secure careers with less debt and fewer years of juggling work and study.

For companies that offer tuition assistance to employees, the idea that work skills should count toward college credit makes financial sense: It means a student spends less time in school and doesn’t have to pay for classes that would teach them something they already know.

And paying for tuition can attract workers in a competitive labor market and keep them longer, slowing turnover, saving money on recruitment and training, and cultivating more loyalty to the employer.

Bonnie Boop became her store's people lead within weeks of completing her courses for the Bachelor of Science in business administration, with a concentration in industrial organizational psychology.
Andi Rice / for NPR
/
for NPR
Bonnie Boop became her store's people lead within weeks of completing her courses for the Bachelor of Science in business administration, with a concentration in industrial organizational psychology.

McDonald’s and Amazon executives say this is exactly their motivation, noting that many people use their jobs as stepping stones to elsewhere. Walmart’s executives differ, saying that their goal is to build a pipeline of talent from the front lines to open positions within the company.

The U.S. military paved the way, but it’s not the same

Counting existing knowledge toward a degree is not a radical idea. Plenty of high school students get a head start on college with credit for AP, or “advanced placement,” classes. Many colleges also offer “credit for prior learning” that lets students skip foreign-language classes if they’re already fluent — or test out of courses through special exams or assessments.

The U.S. military took the idea further in recent decades. It worked with the American Council on Education to build a comprehensive database of how its jobs and training programs translate to college credit.

“There’s no rule about what colleges and universities have to accept,” says ACE’s Derrick Anderson. “But they can look at the person’s military record … and they figure out how much credit they want to award.”

This and other education support made the military “a powerful engine of socioeconomic mobility,” Anderson says. His group’s database of recommended credit now spans work experience beyond the military: government, nonprofits, apprenticeships.

“What I see working with employers, higher education and workforce organizations is a growing understanding that work and learning have been two silos in the past and can’t be two silos in the future,” says Haley Glover, director of Aspen Institute’s UpSkill America initiative.

What about skills simply gained by working?

For now, most of the college credit for work experience focuses on “prior learning” that’s taught in a classroom — standardized, structured and measurable enough to fit rigid criteria — such as training or certification programs.

Figuring out how to map on-the-job skills gained otherwise is the big leap.

“It’s a complex thing,” Glover says. “It requires an employer to be very rigorous about how they’re codifying and assessing, and that’s a capacity that a lot of employers don’t have. It also requires institutions of learning to be very open and progressive.”

Bonnie Boop started at Walmart as a part-time stocking associate and returned to college using the company's tuition-assistance program.
Andi Rice / for NPR
/
for NPR
Bonnie Boop started at Walmart as a part-time stocking associate and returned to college using the company's tuition-assistance program.

Historically, some colleges have allowed students to present a portfolio, diligently documenting learnings on and off the job.

The McDonald’s pilot program is considering how this could work for restaurant employees. Some schools offer a separate course, for example, specifically for compiling a work-skills portfolio.

But expanding this system to the retail and food-service universe would require an army of academics willing to perform individual reviews. That’s a tremendous amount of time, and professors are often hesitant to commit — especially if it means they'd miss out on a potential student.

“This definitely is a process that disrupts what traditional higher ed is used to, in terms of seat time — credit for sitting in a class and doing assignments,” says Brianne McDonough at the workforce development nonprofit Jobs for the Future. “It’s a big change.”

Then, there are more basic challenges. Many workers simply don’t know about their employers’ education offers or struggle to navigate the application bureaucracies. They often receive little scheduling leeway to balance their working and studying hours.

“Shockingly tragic” was how Anderson described the small share of workers taking advantage of corporate college perks.

That’s partly why hiring and education officials talk about a “skills-first approach” to higher education — a future of short-form certificates and credentials weighed on par with college degrees.

“This is a problem that a lot of companies are trying to solve for,” says Lorraine Stomski, who heads Walmart’s learning and leadership programs. “What are the rules of the future?”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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