Fiat Chrysler to Offer Free College for All Dealership Employees

Posted By Candace Talmadge on May 13, 2015 at 11:14 am
Fiat Chrysler to Offer Free College for All Dealership Employees

For many years, businesses have reimbursed workers the cost of tuition for graduate degrees or professional credentials related to their jobs. Several companies in the United States, however, have recently begun or expanded programs to pay some or all of the cost of an undergraduate degree for their employees.

The latest is Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S., which has said it will provide free college tuition to all 118,000 employees at its dealerships in the United States. Starting in the Southeast, with a national rollout planned later this year, the Degrees@Work program is through the for-profit Strayer University. It includes both online and on-campus courses ranging from business administration to accounting, education, information systems, and more.

Starbucks has announced it has expanded its college tuition program using the Arizona State University’s online degree program, going from just employees with junior and senior amounts of college credits to any part-time or full-time employee. Its College Achievement Plan provides access to ASU Online’s 49 undergraduate degree programs and does not require a commitment to remain with Starbucks after the employee graduates.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the 5-year-old Volkswagen Academy offers a three-year paid apprenticeship to learn manufacturing skills. The program has faced the challenge of convincing U.S. parents that it is as valuable to their children as a college degree.

Are these programs worth it?

Mary Alice McCarthy, senior policy analyst at education think tank New America, said the programs overall are a good deal for employees, but the pros and cons of each one should be considered carefully.

The pay-up-front model of the Fiat Chrysler program is less risky for students, because they do not have put up any money. Although McCarthy said Strayer has a good reputation, it is a for-profit college, and if students want to transfer credits to a public or non-profit institution, they may find it more difficult to do. It’s a particular educational trajectory that may be hard to switch out of later.

Starbucks employees may earn a degree in any subject they want, which is a distinct advantage. ASU is not cheap, however, and students must pay up front. This could be dicey for part-time Starbucks workers, since they may not work enough hours to pay for tuition, McCarthy pointed out.

Volkswagen’s apprenticeship with associate’s degree program also has advantages: students are paid while they learn under the traditional apprenticeship model, and there is a job guaranteed at the end of the program. The education, however, is very much tied to what Volkswagen needs from its employees and might not transfer readily to other jobs at different companies.

McCarthy also raised questions about study courses that are totally online, which research has shown is not the best approach to learning for everyone. “Will students have enough home life stability to complete their degree?” she asked.

She noted that as businesses foot more and more of the bill for their workers’ undergraduate degrees, they may tailor the curriculum to their unique workforce needs and possibly limit the degree’s usefulness beyond a particular company. That is a factor that workers should also keep in mind when evaluating these undergraduate programs.

“This is an interesting trend of employers putting more money on the table to invest in employee training and education,” McCarthy said. “I hope it continues. As the labor markets heat up, companies are realizing the value of investing in employee education for recruiting and retention. They also get better work out of educated employees.”

Candace Talmadge
Candace Talmadge has been a professional writer since 1976. She has been on staff or reported and written freelance for media that includes Adweek, Advertising Age, BusinessWeek, the Dallas Times Herald, the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and Reuters America.

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