It has been more than 20 years since I visited Hamburger University, the management-training facility for McDonald’s employees at the company’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. I interviewed a lot of practically minded fast-food managers trying to improve their people skills, their training techniques, and their store results, for an article in which I argued that “McJobs” are unfairly maligned and that places like McDonald’s actually function as remarkably effective de facto job-training programs. Back then, the word “university” in Hamburger U.’s name wasn’t taken especially seriously, at least in a purely academic sense. Perhaps the chain intended an underlying message about its dedication to continuous improvement, but the label mostly seemed like a whimsical bit of marketing-speak – certainly a lot more memorable than “corporate training center.”
Today, however, McDonald’s boasts that students in Hamburger U.'s restaurant-management classes can earn college credits – with the blessing of the American Council on Education, no less. In a fast-food counterpart to academic globalization, Hamburger U. even has branch campuses around the world, including a newly opened facility in China and outposts in Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, and Australia. The company took a still bigger step toward the mainstream of higher ed with an announcement last week that managers in the United Kingdom can earn a no-cost McDonald’s degree in business management. Accredited by Manchester Metropolitan University, the “foundation degree” program is a vocational qualification roughly equivalent to the career-oriented associates degrees offered by U.S. community colleges. According to The Telegraph’s account, McDonald’s employees will also be able earn a full-fledged bachelor’s degree with the company. The fast-food behemoth already offers secondary school qualifications in the U.K. “We see ourselves as an educator just as much as an employer,” David Fairhurst, “chief people officer” at McDonald’s, told The Telegraph. “Tuition fees are rising and university places are increasingly hard to come by. There is a role for employers to fill that gap and provide a new model of learning.”
While a McDegree, even a vocational one, is sure to become a target of ridicule, corporate forays into postsecondary education are becoming common around the world. This is particularly true in places where university graduates often don’t have the skills that companies need. India’s Infosys, for example, runs what The Economist terms “one of the world’s largest corporate universities” on its 335-acre campus in Mysore. With a permanent faculty of 250, it trains about 10,000 workers – known as “Infosysians” – each year. The campus motto is “no caste, no creed, only merit.” There is plenty of other evidence that the line between business training and what is traditionally viewed as higher education is eroding. In England, a BBC report notes, the tony department store Harrods now offers a degree for its staff in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University. Microsoft, of course, has become well-known for its IT certificates. And Wal-Mart made headlines earlier this year when it announced a partnership with American Public University, a for-profit, online provider, that would give the company’s 1.4 million U.S. employees access to discounted classes and degrees. The company had previously considered establishing its own “Wal-Mart U.”
The worth of degrees from such corporate-academic hybrids will ultimately depend on the factors one might expect to matter: quality of faculty, teaching, and curriculum; success in outcome measures such as knowledge and skills gained; and, of course, value in the labor market. Some programs are likely to be better than others. It would certainly be a mistake to dismiss them as substandard simply because of the unconventional pedigrees conferred on their graduates. Hamburger U. and Harvard serve different functions, but they’re both in the human-capital business. Providing more opportunities for working adults to get ahead on the job and in the classroom seems like an idea well worth super sizing.