I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

A fresher take on employer-sponsored education programs.

I owe you all a mea culpa for my pessimistic prediction about the fate of employer-sponsored education benefits in the pandemic. Also, today the Lumina Foundation is releasing its first, long-awaited public evaluation of the three-year-old education program at the nation’s biggest private employer, Walmart.

So, as I parse some of what’s illuminating in that analysis — and also, to my disappointment, how unrevealing and unhelpful it is in so many important ways — this also seems the right moment to take stock of where things stand with employer-backed education programs in general.

First, what I got wrong. A month into the pandemic, with 17 million people out of work and fears of a major recession setting in, I never expected that employers would be adding education benefits, and I worried that some might even curtail them. I also warnedthat, as a result, colleges counting on those enrollments should make other plans.

But in fact that crisis of joblessness soon morphed into what is now a persisting worker shortage. And in their continuing quest to fill jobs, companies as diverse as Target, Waste Management, Amazon, and, yes, Walmart have recently added or expanded education programs. (Walmart dropped its $1-a-day tuition-matching requirement in its Live Better U program, and also now covers the cost of books; Amazon’s expansion will extend the benefit to include four-year degrees at yet-to-be-named colleges.)

Lumina’s strategy director for state action and equity, Haley Glover, who wrote the Walmart evaluation and shared my early-in-the-pandemic worries about retrenchment in employer-sponsored education, said she’s heartened to see that education remained a priority for many employers and that it “became a priority” for new ones.

But whether many colleges will benefit from the programs is harder to know. In part that’s because some of the biggest employers’ programs are still new.

It’s also because a company called Guild Education manages many of the employer relationships and has become a bit of a gatekeeper in determining which colleges’ programs are open to which students. For example, for the Walmart program, a number of new institutions affiliated with Guild Education were recently added to the roster, including a training company, called Pathstream, that is partly owned by investors who are senior leaders at Guild. Meanwhile, the University of Florida, which was one of Walmart’s original three education partners and currently enrolls about 60 Walmart students, was quietly dropped from enrolling new students last month. A spokesperson for the university said that it was told it was too selective and that Walmart wanted colleges that were more access-oriented, although another major research university, the University of Arizona, has since been added. Florida accepted nearly half of the 182 Walmart employees who applied.

Paul Freedman, president of Guild’s Learning Marketplace, said decisions on colleges and programs offered are made in consultation with the employers in a “dual curation model,” based on objective performance data. Of course, I continue to wonder how Guild’s revenue-sharing arrangements with its partner colleges might be influencing those decisions. (UF doesn’t pay any revenue to Guild for Walmart students who are local and pay in-state tuition rates.)

Glover, while noting that her study did not focus on how students are guided to colleges, said she appreciates that Guild’s services include advising for students. “Many adult students don’t get that at all,” she said, and simply choose a college based on price and proximity. “They might be making a worse decision, or no decision at all.”

Freedman responded that it’s in Guild’s best interest to avoid favoritism. To do otherwise, he said, “wouldn’t be a very successful long-term business model.” Take all that for what you will.

As for the evaluation of the Walmart program itself, here are some top-line numbers:

  • Nearly 30,000 students were active in the program as of April 30. It’s hard to put that number in context. As a proportion of Walmart’s overall work force of more than 1.5 million, it’s a minuscule percentage. When the program was first announced, in May 2018, Walmart said it hoped to have 68,000 students enroll in the first five years, a goal it called conservative. The evaluation, however, does not give information on cumulative enrollments. In a late-July news release, however, Walmart said more than 52,000 associates had participated in the program to date. So on that score — and based on growth rates — it’s likely to easily hit its target.
  • Employees have earned nearly 7,300 credentials, also as of April 30, mostly in high-school and certificate programs. The count includes 336 employees who earned bachelor’s degrees and 50 who earned associate degrees (both probably based on prior credits or credits awarded for completing Walmart Academy courses). In the news release that included three additional months of activity, Walmart said 8,000 had already graduated.
  • Just over one-third of students participating in the Live Better U program are enrolled in bachelor’s or associate programs. Eighteen percent are enrolled to earn high-school diplomas, and a comparable proportion are taking part in a Guild program called College Start, which is a self-paced, credit-bearing pathway program for students with no higher-ed experience.

That’s all well and good. But it left me with a ton of other questions. Where are the Walmart students going? Are they sticking with the courses or finding it difficult to continue? How do outcomes differ for those in competency-based programs versus those in more-traditional online courses? And most important: Is there anything to be learned from their patterns of attrition that might shape how other employers or colleges design programs for working learners, especially those who are lower-paid hourly employees? I only wish I could tell you. None of that information is in the report.

The evaluation did look at the workplace effect on the 32,000 Live Better U participants during the first two years of the program, finding that they stuck with the company at higher rates than did nonparticipants and had higher rates of promotion (15 percent versus 8 percent among Black participants and 17 percent versus 10 percent for those who identify as Hispanic or Latino). It also found that participants received higher performance ratings, but as the report states, it’s hard to know whether the education program motivates employees or just “enables supervisors to better recognize already-solid performance.” Either way, said Glover, it’s a plus because “their supervisors are noticing.”

For Glover, the key findings were those showing that rates of participation among hourly workers in Live Better U, based on race and ethnicity, were comparable to the overall demographics of that work force. It’s important to know if employees’ access to the educational opportunities are equitable, she said, especially if such programs are proliferating, “as they seem to be.”

That’s a good point — especially considering that I’ve seen other surveys (like Chart 4 in this survey) that show only about 20 percent of low-wage workers are in jobs that offer them tuition benefits. So at the very least, the Walmart program is a model for making education available to employees in ways that most companies don’t.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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