Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced a program Thursday in which its workers can receive college credit for their in-store training and get a tuition discount toward a college degree.
The company also said it will commit $50 million over three years to help workers pay for books and tuition above the reduced tuition rate at American Public University, an online school. After the reduction, tuition will cost $212.50 per undergraduate credit hour and $255 for graduate credits.
Wal-Mart Chief Administrative Officer Tom Mars said the program grew out of a larger commitment to cultivate talent within the company. The plan is open to domestic workers at Walmart and Sam's Club stores.
"We wanted to create a new way of thinking about what we call associate opportunity," Mars said.
Alicia Ledlie, Wal-Mart senior director for associate development, said nearly three-quarters of Wal-Mart workers contacted in a survey said they preferred online study to attending a local college.
Ledlie said Wal-Mart looked at 81 colleges, including brick-and-mortar schools, and found American Public University, based in Charles Town, W.Va., to be the best fit.
Wal-Mart workers receive job training in areas ranging from ethics to retail inventory management, for which they can receive credit, she said.
Sara Martinez Tucker, a former U.S. undersecretary of education who is on Wal-Mart's external advisory council, said Wal-Mart would have had to form a tremendous coalition of schools to offer a similar program through local community colleges and universities.
Tucker said it is helpful to employees because they don't have to apply for reimbursement from their employer.
Students won't have to pay for credits awarded based on their training.
American Public University, with 70,000 students, offers more than 100 certificate and degree programs.
The credit for training can be applied mainly to business- and retail-related courses. Wal-Mart said the school will have evaluated for credit jobs held by 70 percent of Wal-Mart workers by 2012. That covers about 1 million workers.
Wal-Mart also offers scholarships through its foundation and offers assistance to workers seeking GEDs.
Wal-Mart executives said the link with the school will help workers attain better jobs both inside and outside the company.
Mars said part of the company's expanded effort to groom management included the removal of a requirement that workers have to move to a new store when they are promoted to management. That opens the promotions to workers who can't or won't move, and it helps Wal-Mart draw on a larger talent pool, especially if the workers are getting a better education.
Tucker noted that if 10 percent of Wal-Mart's U.S. workers get degrees, "that would be like adding three Ohio State's worth of graduates."
A Wal-Mart manager can make $130,000 per year or more with bonuses, Wal-Mart spokesman Dave Tovar said.
Wal-Mart Vice Chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright announced the program at a meeting of about 4,000 U.S. Wal-Mart workers Thursday, a day before Wal-Mart's annual shareholders meeting.
American Public University is accredited in various ways, including national accreditation by the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council. It is run by for-profit American Public Education Inc.
The week of its annual meeting, Bentonville-based Wal-Mart conducts meetings and training for store managers from around the world. The meeting, which usually features appearances by celebrities and music stars, starts at 7 a.m. CDT and will be webcast on Wal-Mart's corporate website.