The pandemic economy has been a roller coaster, especially for service workers. First laid off en masse as businesses shuttered, they now find themselves in high demand as pent up consumers flock back to restaurants and retailers in person.
To attract and retain workers in the retail industry, Walmart and Target recently unveiled new programs that would pay 100% of the fees associated with earning certain degrees, certificates and diplomas at select colleges and universities.
The education benefits are available to their combined workforce of nearly 2 million, regardless of full-time or part-time status. And they are available on Day 1 of employment. Employees of Sam’s Club, which is part of the Walmart empire, are also eligible.
Both programs are managed by Guild Education, an education-benefits company. Guild’s programs pair employers with training and education providers all across the country.
While higher wages are one way to attract workers, according to Guild, that’s not as effective as education in the long run.
“America’s workforce wants more — wages increasing to $15 an hour isn’t as impactful if there is no internal mobility or path to promotion,” Guild spokesperson Brooke LaRue told The Penny Hoarder. “Education benefits provide opportunities for growth and upskilling that will help equip workers for long-term career mobility and security in the future of work.”
While Target and Walmart both partnered with Guild, the companies’ education benefits are distinct.
Here’s how the two new programs work — and what else you should keep in mind if you want to take advantage of them.
Target’s New Debt-Free Education Benefits
Starting in fall 2021, all of Target’s roughly 340,000 part-time and full-time employees in the U.S. are eligible for its new debt-free education program. For new hires, the benefits are available starting the first day of employment once the program is in effect.
Target employees are eligible for 100% free GEDs, diplomas, certificates, associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in certain topics and through Guild partner institutions.
Eligible subject areas include:
- Business management and operations
- Information technology
- Computer sciences
- Design and more
The programs are taught through more than 40 non-profit and public schools, colleges and universities, such as:
- Brandman University
- Oregon State University
- Rio Salado College
- South New Hampshire University
- University of Arizona
- University of Central Florida
- University of Denver
- University of Florida
- And the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) Morehouse College and Paul Quinn College
Target will also cover all costs associated with the programs, such as textbook and course fees. Additionally, English language courses and upskilling bootcamps (industry jargon for continuing education) related to the business-aligned topics are available at no cost.
For education programs outside of the pre-approved Guild network of schools, Target will provide tuition assistance of up to $5,250 for non-master’s programs and up to $10,000 for master’s programs. The benefits are paid upfront and directly to the school to limit out-of-pocket expenses for students.
Walmart’s New Live Better U Education Benefits
Through its Live Better U (LBU) program, Walmart has been providing its U.S. workforce education assistance through Guild Education since 2018. However, the benefits were initially limited to 50 programs at a handful of colleges, and while it largely subsidized the education costs, employees still had to pay $1 per day.
LBU has expanded since then, and starting Aug. 16, Walmart is axing the $1 per day fee.
Once the changes take place, all Walmart and Sam’s Club employees in the U.S. — a workforce of approximately 1.5 million — will be able to receive 100% free college tuition for more than 60 programs at 10 academic institutions.
Eligible academic subjects include:
- Business administration
- Health and wellness
- Supply chain
Walmart’s academic partners are:
- Brandman University
- Johnson and Wales University
- Penn Foster
- Purdue University Global
- Southern New Hampshire University
- University of Arizona
- University of Denver
- Voxy EnGen
- Wilmington University
Walmart will also cover the cost of textbooks and other tuition fees associated with English language courses and certain trade-skill and certificate programs “that meet business demand,” according to the program announcement. All LBU benefits are available on the first day of employment.
What Else to Know About Guild Education’s Programs
While the specific schools and subject areas may vary by employer, all Guild Education programs operate similarly.
LaRue said that all students must maintain a certain GPA to stay in their programs cost-free. GPA requirements vary by program. She also said that the overwhelming majority of students complete their programs online, but if you happen to live near one of the institutions your employer is partnering with, you can opt for in-person classes if you prefer.
Online learning isn’t for everyone. If you struggle to stay motivated or have a history of poor academic performance, you should consider in-person learning — where safely available.
To help with that all Guild Education students are assigned a coach that can help with things like registering for classes, balancing work and school and developing a career plan.
Target vs. Walmart: Who Wins the Benefits War?
Target and Walmart are currently locked in a game of one-upmanship to draw in new employees while also keeping current employees from inching toward the door during The Great Resignation.
For those comfortable working on the front lines, it’s a good spot to be in. Wages and benefits are finally starting to make meaningful gains. And it only took a pandemic to urge some employers to act.
In addition to the new education benefits, both Walmart and Target increased wages earlier in the pandemic.
In June 2020, Target announced a $15 company-wide minimum wage. And in February 2021, Walmart answered with an “average wage” increase to $15, but the changes weren’t company wide. It boosted about 425,000 front-line workers’ wages to $13 to $19 an hour, while it’s minimum wage remained at $11.
When it comes to education benefits, there’s a clear winner as well.
“From the employee perspective, Target, in particular, is offering the most comprehensive programs and offerings that we’ve seen,” said Guild Education CEO Rachel Carlson during a recent broadcast of CNBC’s “The Exchange.”
Anytime employers compete with each other to offer better wages and benefits, workers are the real winners.
Adam Hardy is a reporter and editor based in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was previously a staff writer for The Penny Hoarder.