Colorado Springs workers getting free education through company programs | Subscriber Content

Trinity Bastin, Elena Bautista Rios and Janet Reyes all work at Amazon’s fulfillment center near the Colorado Springs Airport. When they’re not at work, they are likely in class or taking online courses at Pikes Peak State College on the company’s tab.

Bastin wants to get a degree in computer science, Bautista Rios hopes to become an elementary school teacher and Reyes is enrolled in a general studies curriculum with plans to decide later what  college major she’ll pursue. All three women hope to complete their degrees in a few years without taking on any student loan debt since Amazon will pay all tuition and fees up to $5,350 a year as long as they remain employed by the online retail giant.


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Amazon is among a growing number of major employers offering to pay tuition and other higher education costs to help attract and keep employees amid a nationwide labor shortage that isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. UCHealth also pays for the cost of dozens of college programs for its employees statewide to move into higher-paying jobs by earning everything from certificates for pharmacy technicians and phlebotomists to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in respiratory therapy, social work and behavioral health.

Many other companies with a presence in Colorado Springs — including Chipotle, Lowes, Target, Walmart and Waste Management — offer a similar benefit through Denver-based Guild Education and its network of colleges and universities, which include University of Denver and the College of Business at Colorado State University. Guild Education offers more than 2,200 academic programs through its network of higher education institutions, ranging from from high school completion and English as a second language to software engineering and product management.

Rachel Romer started Guild Education in 2015 to help employers close the gap between what employees wanted and what employers could pay when it came to educational benefits that help entry-level and lower-income workers move into higher-paying jobs. The company has raised $378.5 million in venture capital since then to expand its reach, more than doubling in the past year the number of students using its platform that now is available to more than 5 million workers.

“Our research has shown that 63% of workers will stay with their employers if they have the opportunity for career development and career pathways,” Romer said. “Companies can help with that by offering education and career mobility. That creates a way for employees to stay at the company.

“A major insight to the early work of Guild is that employers can help their employees avoid (student loan) debt entirely and we help employers find a way to do that.”

Debt-free education programs were pioneered by Starbucks and Guild in the past decade to offer educational benefits more broadly than the tuition reimbursement programs many employers have offered for decades but were mostly used mostly by white-collar workers. Debt-free programs appeal to a wider cross-section of the workforce because employees don’t have to come up with the money to pay for tuition and books and wait months to get reimbursed by their employer.

“By asking a worker to pay upfront (for college classes), then reimburse them at the end of the year, that often meant the workers would put those costs on a credit card or get a payday loan, so reimbursement worked for white-collar workers but not for the entry-level workforce,” Romer said. “The return on investment (from paying directly for college courses) is so significant that employers should make sure every employee has that opportunity.”


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An April Harvard Business Review article written by executives from Guild and Walmart said the financial burden of enrolling in higher education programs is the top barrier to enrollment and the top reason students drop out of college. The results at Denver-based restaurant chain Chipotle showed that employees participating in its free college education program (through Guild) are 350% more likely to stay with the company and are seven times more likely to advance into management.

Amazon’s program with Pikes Peak State College, which is not operated through Guild (though the college is seeking to join the Guild program), started May 31 and already has attracted 100 students — mostly for courses in information technology, health care and general studies, said Chelsy Harris, the college’s associate vice president of strategic partnerships. The average age of program participants is 28, with the majority having little or no college experience, she said.

“You can save money by spending money on an education benefit to improve (employee) retention. It can be a win for both the employee and the organization,” Harris said. “In addition to helping employees avoid (student loan) debt, programs like this help people get the education they need for a livable wage job that has career advancement opportunities. That doesn’t have to be a full two- or four-year degree; it can be certifications that can be earned much more quickly.”

None of the three Amazon workers were aware of the company’s Career Choice program before they took jobs at the massive fulfillment center, but all three said they will stay with the company until they finish their degrees, and perhaps afterwards. Bastin, 22, said she probably wouldn’t still be working at Amazon without the college-payment program and likely will remain with the company if it offers her a job in her new career field after she completes the program.

“I’ve taken college courses in the past, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do (as a career). I finally figured it out,” Bastin said. “I heard about the (Career Choice) program though my manager, so I looked into it. I had read that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs were in very high demand, so there would be more opportunities. I enjoy having the opportunity to get my college (classes) paid for because they are very expensive.”

Reyes, 29, wants to get a four-year degree, but hasn’t decided what career she wants to pursue and thus hasn’t chosen a major.  Eventually, t hough, she wants to start her own real estate business to buy homes and turn them into short-term vacation rentals.

Bautista Rios, 24, just started the early childhood education program at Pikes Peak State College, but eventually wants to transfer to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to get a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She said her niece and nephew and her love of children inspired her to work to become a teacher and she began taking college classes three years ago with financial aid, but the Amazon program will make completing her degree easier and less expensive.

UCHealth’s Ascend program, which is operated by Guild and pays for entry-level and other lower-paid employees to take college classes to move into higher-paying jobs, started in February and already has attracted 126 employees in southern Colorado, including Kristine Hoffner. The 20-year-old UCCS student, who will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in cellular molecular biology, was hired in September 2021 as a phlebotomist and used the program to complete medical assistant training; she eventually wants to use the program to continue her education to become a physician assistant.

“One of the reasons I applied at UCHealth is that I want to be a physician assistant and I can continue to work there and get the 1,200 hours of clinical experience I will need to reach that goal. I wanted to get my foot in the door with UCHealth (as a phlebotomist) and continue to move up the clinical ladder,” Hoffner said. “Programs like this allow companies to keep good employees and give them the opportunity to grow in their career.”

Both UCCS and Pikes Peak State College have college-payment programs with UCHealth and Aamazon, but neither school has developed a major effort to seek additional such agreements with local employers .


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However, some employers are already looking at such programs; Ent Credit Union, which already reimburses employees up to $10,000 a year for college courses, is looking at expanding into directly paying for classes. Chris Beiswanger, UCCS director of admissions, said other companies have contacted him to learn more about the Amazon program so they can offer a similar benefit to their employees but haven’t yet set up or launched such a program.

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