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Big Companies That Help Older Workers Finish a College Degree

Why Starbucks and others do it and how their programs work

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe

Nearly 3 ½ million Americans age 50 or older have taken some college courses but haven’t earned a degree or certificate, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Some big employers, such as Starbucks, JetBlue, Fiat/Chrysler and Pizza Hut are now helping them finish a college degree.

finish a college degree
Credit: Getty Images

These companies have launched programs allowing their employees of any age to earn a college degree online for little or no out-of-pocket costs. (The specifics vary for each program and are noted at the end of this article.)

Why Employees and Employers Win

It’s a win/win for employees and employers. “When people are working on improving themselves, their productivity and performance improves,” says John Fox, director of dealer training, FCA Performance Institute, Fiat/Chrysler. Others offering college-completion programs say this benefit helps them with recruitment, retention and employee engagement.

Many 50+ employees at firms with the programs are enrolling. For example, about 15 percent of employees in JetBlue’s are 50 and older (the oldest is 66). And at Fiat/Chrysler, roughly 12 percent of enrolled employees are 50+.

Earning College Credit for What You Know

One of the bonuses of these programs for older workers: they can earn college credit for what they already know.

Converting into college credits their aviation, military or on-the-job training, plus other professional certificates, often cuts the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree. Training and licenses in the fields of medicine, first response, human resources, information technology and military training are also typically eligible for college credits.

A Reason to Finish a College Degree: Personal Satisfaction

Often, the older employees going back to college are doing it more for personal satisfaction than career advancement.

For instance, Terry Thrushmann, 62, a sales consultant and training manager at Milosch's Palace CJD Ram Truck in Lake Orion, Mich., enrolled in Fiat/Chrysler’s [email protected] to show his 3-year-old granddaughter that it’s possible to get a college degree. Thrushmann left college before freshman year ended to work at Ford. Although he always intended to finish college, he never did. His son and daughter-in-law also didn’t go to college. “I decided the best way for my granddaughter to get a degree is for poppa to show her that he can do it,” Thrushmann says. Taking courses online is easier than taking them on a college campus, says Thrushmann, who's getting a business administration degree.

Two Enrolling Through JetBlue

Susan Wirzburger, 58, JetBlue coordinator of operations in Boston, also had to leave college before completing her degree. Although she tried several times to go back to school part-time after her son was born, she never finished. And her colleague, Marie Joseph Viala, 56, left college after two years and never returned. “I felt like I was missing something in my life by not having a degree,” says Viala, general manager of JetBlue operations in Haiti. Both women are enrolled in the JetBlue Scholars program and hope to earn credit for skills they already have.

Wirzburger, who will get a liberal studies degree, hopes to earn college credits for the on-the-job training she received as a former business owner. Viala, who’s earning a business science degree, applied to get credit for the two languages she knows — French and Creole.

“Getting my degree is something I have wanted to do for many, many years,” says Viala. “Once I receive this degree, I plan on continuing my education and perhaps getting a second degree in business or aviation management.” Wirzburger plans to use her diploma to show her children and others that it is never too late to get an education.

Pestering Store Management

Diane W. Tavoian, 63, tried several times to complete her degree and finally returned to college at Arizona State University a few years ago. She started the final year of her bachelor’s when but ran out of funding. Her solution: Get hired as a barista at her local Starbucks in Covington, Texas and enroll in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, offered through ASU.

“I was a student with ASU already and had heard about the Starbucks program, so the only thing to do was to pester store management until they capitulated and hired me,” Tavoian says. She hopes her degree will set a good example for her daughters and granddaughters as well as encourage others to finish their college educations. “If I can do it at my age, anyone can,” Tavoian says. She plans to also earn a master’s degree.

Earning a Free High School Diploma

In addition to programs helping employees get college degrees, some corporations are offering employees the opportunity to earn a high school diploma for free.

For instance, Walmart and McDonalds have partnered with Cengage Learning to offer accredited high school diplomas and credentialed career certificates through Cengage’s Career Online High School. Students earn an actual high school diploma, not a GED or Certificate of High School Equivalency, says Ronald Stefanski, executive director of strategic alliances at Cengage Learning. Nearly 1,000 employees from Walmart and McDonalds are enrolled; about 4 percent of them are 50 or older.

4 Subsidized Back-to-College Programs

Here are details on the four subsidized back-to-college programs mentioned in the article:

JetBlue Scholars Program

Education partner: Thomas Edison State University (TESU) in Trenton, N.J.


Who can participate: Any JetBlue employee with two years of service and at least 15 prior college credits earned from an accredited two- or four-year college to earn a degree in business, aviation, liberal studies or IT. Employees with military service, as well as pilots or mechanics with an FAA license qualify for this program, too.

Out-of-pocket costs: Employees pay for their final credits at TESU, which can cost up to $3,500. U.S. employees are encouraged to apply for a Pell Grant and a JetBlue scholarship.

Converts on-the-job and other training: Yes

Fiat/Chrysler’s [email protected]

Education partner: Strayer University

Who can participate: All Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram Truck and FIAT dealerships can choose to offer the program as an employee benefit. Some dealerships extend the program to family members.

Out-of-pocket costs: There is no cost to employees.

Converts on-the-job and other training: Yes

Pizza Hut’s Life Unboxed Edu

Education partner: Excelsior College

Who can participate: Every Pizza Hut employee (equity or franchise, salaried or hourly) and immediate family members

Out-of-pocket costs: Employees receive a 45 percent discount on undergraduate tuition and a 15 percent discount on graduate tuition, and Pizza Hut will pay up to $5,250 per year in tuition, books and fees for each salaried, full-time corporate employee participating in the program.

Converts on-the-job and other training: Yes

Starbucks College Achievement Plan

Education partner: Arizona State University (ASU)

Who can participate: All U.S.-based, benefits-eligible Starbucks employees who do not yet have a bachelor’s degree

Out-of-pocket costs: Each student enrolled in the program receives a scholarship from ASU that covers 42 percent of the costs. Students can apply for a Pell Grant and other financial aid. Starbucks reimburses the employee for any remaining tuition after each semester.

Converts on-the-job and other training: No

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer and editor who writes about personal finance and business for Fast Company, and other media outlets. Read More
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