Work at Wal-Mart, earn college credit

Here and Now

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

About half of Wal-Mart’s 1.4 million employees in the United States don’t have college degrees. So when the world’s largest retailer announced a partnership with the online, for-profit American Public University, a school with about 70,000 students, the world of higher education took notice.

“If 10 to 15 percent of employees take advantage of this, that’s like graduating three Ohio State Universities,” Sara Martinez Tucker, a former under secretary of education who is now on Wal-Mart’s external advisory council, told the New York Times. “It’s a lot of Americans getting a college degree at a time when it’s becoming less affordable.”

It’s also a time when for-profit colleges are facing harsh scrutiny from the Federal Government. Some have accused for-profit colleges of misleading and even fraudulent recruiting practices. For-profit colleges are often more expensive than public, community colleges, and many are concerned that institutions are offering educations that don’t lead to jobs, but do lead to large debts.

“There’s a misunderstanding when people say ‘for profit’,” Karan Powell, senior vice president and academic dean at APU, told PRI’s Here and Now. “I know for us, we’re a university first. We happen to be exchanged on the NASDAQ by our owners and the investors who invest in us, but more than anything we are a university first.”

The deal with Wal-Mart offers college credit for learning that has already taken place while working at the retailer. For example, a loader at Wal-Mart may have learned about transportation, logistics or management. APU would evaluate what that person has learned, compared with pre-existing classes, to see what kinds of credit he or she would be eligible for.

“We are aware of all the scrutiny — very much aware,” Powell said. “At the same time we’re also aware that the process that we’ve that we’ve used consistent with the standards established across higher education for awarding of credit.”

An outstanding question concerning the college credits is whether or not other colleges will accept them. “We are always concerned about the transfer of credit,” Powell told Here and Now. Ultimately, though, it’s up to other institutions whether or not they want to accept any credits.

Wal-Mart has pledged to commit $50 million over the next 3 years to help workers pay for tuition and books, according to the Associated Press. With the discounts, tuition will cost about $212.50 per undergraduate credit. “They are going to have to enroll and pay for their own education,” Powell told Here and Now. But ultimately, Powell insists, “our goal is to encourage people to get their college education and to go back to school.” And she believes the deal with Wal-Mart will help a lot of people do just that.

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