Monday, June 07, 2010

 

Wal-Mart University? Really?

I take a week off from blogging, and Wal-Mart announces that it's entering higher education! I can't leave you people alone for one minute...

Anyway, it appears that Wal-Mart is entering into an agreement with the American Public University system -- which is for-profit, not public -- to offer its employees a group rate on any of several online degrees. Wal-Mart has a history of hiring from within, but many of its front-line staff don't have the educational background to move up, so this is a way for the company to grow its own.

A little quick research revealed that American Public University is an entirely online operation with a history of specializing in serving military personnel. (The system is comprised of American Military University and American Public University.) That may explain why its "arts and humanities" offerings include "air warfare" and "civil war studies" but not, say, poli sci. It's regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, which is the same agency that accredits the University of Michigan and Northwestern. (It's also the agency that accredits the University of Phoenix and DeVry.) As such, it's eligible for Federal financial aid, and its students will have a legitimate expectation of transfer credit, should they try.

This is a bit of an inkblot test for commenters, so without tipping my hand overly much, a few opening thoughts:

- Even with the discount, the cost to the student for an Associate's degree is still higher than the cost at most community colleges. Community colleges with robust online offerings should be more than competitive here, if the prospective students know about them. I'm just sayin'.

- It doesn't appear that APU has any full-time faculty, at least from a quick perusal of the website. (I'm open to correction on this.) That doesn't seem to be an issue with North Central, judging by its accreditation of Rio Salado College, but it certainly raises a question. Might it be time for North Central to reconsider some of its standards?

- As a national system, APU can go into territories usually covered by, say, Middle States or SACS, and fly under the banner of North Central. (It's the same idea as a cruise ship flying a Liberian flag.) To the extent that Middle States and/or SACS have more stringent requirements in some areas, APU may have a competitive advantage on cost, at least at the four-year level.

- The real eyebrow-raiser for me was the offer of academic credits for Wal-Mart work experience. Apparently, the ethics training Wal-Mart provides its employees will form the basis for some academic credits. I'll repeat that for emphasis. The ethics training conducted by Wal-Mart will be given academic credit. Just let that one sink in for a few minutes.

- The gift of academic credit for work experience may be a form of golden handcuffs. I'd be alarmed if those credits were accepted in transfer just about anywhere. Since students wouldn't want to lose credits, they'd have to see the APU program through. It's like a non-transferable coupon.

- In thinking about the appeal of the program for Wal-Mart employees, I kept reflecting on the fact that the program was originally designed for soldiers on active duty. I understand the need for temporal flexibility with soldiers on active duty, and I have no issue with it. In a war zone, things happen when they happen. But what does it say about Wal-Mart as an employer that its employees need the same level of special accommodation as soldiers on active duty? Low wages are bad enough, but low wages combined with fluid hours just add insult to injury. If Wal-Mart wanted to encourage its employees to stick around, one way to do it would be to offer more stable and predictable hours. Let people plan their lives more than a week in advance. Afghanistan is a war zone, but the home and garden department isn't.

- A few years ago, Wal-Mart started moving into financial services. Combine Wal-Mart U with Wal-Mart private student loans to Wal-Mart employees, and we're getting uncomfortably close to the old "company town" model. This hasn't happened yet, but it wouldn't take much more than a nudge to get there. Wal-Mart could even garnish the pay of its employees who fall behind on loan payments! Once the logic starts to unfold, it's remarkably difficult to stop.

- As easy as knee-jerk indignation is -- I'll admit to some of that in bullet point four, above -- the real burden on public or non-profit private higher ed is to explain what it has to offer that Wal-Mart U doesn't. Within the world of higher ed, we may take things like "adjunct percentages" seriously, but that's because it's a bread-and-butter issue for us. For the twenty-something cart shagger looking to get ahead, the "adjunct percentage" debate is entirely abstract. If APU helps him move up in the organization, and the logistics are manageable, who's to blame him? Once we get the throat-clearing out of the way, we need to be able to explain -- convincingly, briefly, repeatedly, and correctly -- why what we offer is better. Either that, or we need to prepare to have our collective lunch eaten.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you make of the prospect of Wal-Mart U?

Comments:
A cross-cultural observation (not on topic). I'd never heard of the shopping trolley stacker/mover being called a cart-shagger before.

It makes perfect sense.

It's just that "shagged" is slang, depending on where you are in the world, for being exhausted, as in "I'm absolutely shagged", or "fancy a shag?" as slang for casual sex.

But, either use makes perfect sense.
 
All of your points were spot-on with my thinking about the agreement. When I first came across the story the institution wasn't provided and I had suspected Kaplan or Walden, as Wal-mart already has agreements with both institutions.

So I can start my day feeling pretty good that my initial thoughts were on par with those of Dean Dad. :)
 
Wal-Mart has a long history of providing its employees with access to deals on services in lieu of higher pay. If higher education is not sacred, there is very little shocking about this.

Your point about company towns is quite valid....but some people might actually prefer them.
 
As for explaining why what we offer is better - I'm not sure I see where this question would even be raised. Are non-profit academic institutions really going to be in the position of competing with APU for WalMart employees? It seems far-fetched.
 
If local community colleges or public universities where offering the services people were looking for these deals would not be attractive. However I know from personal experience they are not. I have lived in several areas of the US. In none of them could I find a Bachelors program that would accommodate the schedule of a working adult. I have not yet sign up for a online program like this one, but I am considering it.
 
To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure the ethics class thing is my biggest problem. I'd imagine that it's mostly 'don't steal from the company' type ethics (i.e. don't undermine the system of trust necessary for the institution to work). In a sense, I see this as analogous to 'ethics' classes in college that teach, essentially, 'don't cheat in class' (i.e. don't undermine the system of trust necessary for the institution to work).
At the graduate school level, NIH funded training grants require ethics classes. The class I took, although useful and interesting, was predominantly about the nuts-and-bolts legal requirements and ethics necessary to keep biomedical research functioning. It was most certainly not about Bentham or Kant- indeed, if it were, many institutions would rebel. It was only a single credit hour, and indeed, the workload was on par with my "Introduction to canoeing" in undergrad. But then, it is only because they keep the required curriculum so directly relevant to NIH interests (giving them a good answer to the regular favorite question 'why do I have to take this?') that the whole thing works at all.
Now, biomedical research is a heck of a lot more prestigious than Walmart, but ultimately, it's an ethics class oriented toward the ethics necessary for the business to run.

In addition, I can't really see the difference between this and "Hamburger University"- what is Walmart doing that is new? For that matter, I think most of the UPS partnerships apply to 'real' colleges, and they were still pretty horrible from what I remember reading about. In which case, it's the employer-college provider combination which is suspect. In which case, what do we think about the wages work-study students get paid???

I thought the most painful part of the story you linked to the whole "we have good jobs, let's make them even better" attitude. And if you believe that, I've got some 'college credit' I'd like to sell you... *sigh* Another reason not to shop at Walmart.
 
Even with the discount, the cost to the student for an Associate's degree is still higher than the cost at most community colleges. Community colleges with robust online offerings should be more than competitive here, if the prospective students know about them.

As another commenter has pointed out, prospective students don't know about those places. And I bet it'll be easy as pie for a Wal-Mart employee to sign up for these APU courses. In fact, I suspect that store metrics will soon include a new statistic: how many employees are registered at APU?

There are so many subtle ways this can be marketed, too. Brochures in your pay envelope, mentions of co-workers who've enrolled. . . . Wal-Mart can heavily promote this partnership to its employees who won't have the savvy to know how much more they're paying out for a cut-rate degree!
 
Two questions I think should be asked and answered to make this a stronger debate:

What's wrong with company towns? DD implies they are bad, but as another poster suggests, some people might prefer them. Are company towns fundamentally flawed?

Credit-for-work/life experience: Who started that, and how well is it accepted?

(And more generally, wrt the community colleges: Sure the ones that offer online courses are great, but if you don't live "locally" you don't have access to the in-state rates. Online courses aside, it simply sucks to have to arrange your courses around your work schedule. Colleges that offer night classes serve the 9-5 adult just fine (assuming they offer enough of them) but don't serve shift-work workers well at all.

So even though H&G may not be a war zone, there's no guarantee that an employee will be able to keep his hours/days off for 15 straight weeks. As always "the needs of the business" come first.
 
I might go back to school solely so I can claim a credential in air warfare at parties.
 
The points about the flexibility that online courses provide are quite correct. And for people whose work schedules change, sometimes unpredictably, f2f classes can be difficult.

At my institution, faculty in the Labor Studies program created, more than a decade ago, a program they called "Swing-Shift College." It consists of courses that have paired sections, one at (say) 8 AM, the other at 7 PM, and students attend whichever class time meets their current work schedule. It has been extremely popular with students (although less so with the faculty who teach in it--after all, you're guaranteed two 12-hour days a week (at best)--or with the administration (I have no idea why). If you want more info, email me (dcoffin@iun.edu) and I'lll do what I can.
 
From the FAQ for IU's labor studies program:

"In all Labor studies classes you should assume the instructor will take a pro-worker and pro-labor stance"

So I think Anon 7:49's question is extremely pertinent. Is a company town degree worse than a Big Labor PR degree?
 
Uh, the quick answer on why a company town is bad is that it allows the company to create indentured servants of their employees - since there is one owner for everything, there is no reason for that owner to provide affordable food and housing (or anything that's not in the interest of the company, and that interest can be both narrowly defined and very different than the interest of the employees as a human being). The company bank extends credit, but then you're in debt to your employer, and from there, you're toast, since they can find ways to keep you in debt more or less perpetually.
 
The first thing I thought of when I saw this story was that the college degree is the new high school diploma: Relatively meaningless in terms of education, but necessary as a status symbol to get a job.

I can't help but see this as devaluing the BA or BS - not that it's not already devalued, either. But I don't see how this could possibly make having a degree more meaningful.
 
In response to Anon at 10 AM, I should add that almost all of the courses in the Swing Shift program are not labor studies courses. Things like freshman writing, intro psych/soc, US history. In fact, very few of the actual labos studies courses ever wound up in Swing Shift. (So far as I know, they've never asked anyone to do intro econ...)
 
And, I should also add, the *concept* underlying the Swing Shift program is independent of the courses being offered (or of their content)--it's a pure scheduling play.
 
Dean Dad: I think the prospects for Wal-Mart University are quite good. If by good you mean:

1. healthy profits for APU.
2. the creation of management fodder for Wal-Mart.
3. I expect the quality of the education will be fair to good, depending on the application of the student.

I am not sure these are people who would have enrolled in a four-year or CC in any case. As noted by other commenters, scheduling, and other commitments make it hard to go back to school. So I am not sure this heralds the end of higher education as we know it. I am not even sure its a paper cut.

What will matter is that this population of students will experience significantly higher rates of default on loans and retention problems, same as students attending other for-profit schools. The perspective students will not be served by Wal-Mart U if they take out student loans.
 
My feelings when I read the initial article last week were varied.

At first I used to be philosophically against universities providing college credit for life experience. Then, over time, my feelings softened, as I realize that sometimes individuals really do gain valid life experience, whether it be through corporate training programs such as the ones at Wal-Mart or other mechanisms, that arguably should equate to some sort of college credit. Personally I'm more comfortable when such life learning credits apply to more career-oriented degree programs (e.g., AAS, BAS, BBA).

I also admit a bias against for-profit educational institutions, but part of that is just that - bias based on an ingrained world view as to how education should work. A friend had me watch the Frontline program from last month on for-profit universities (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/collegeinc/view/), and I have to say it was very educational. I don't know that it fundamentally altered my views of them, but it did help me see things much better from their persepctive.

As several previous commentors have stated, APU and this agreement with Wal-Mart would not exist if other, "standard" institutions were meeting the needs. I have to give APU a lot of credit for identifying an unmet need and coming up with a creative "solution" to meet that need.

If nothing else, APU and other for-profit institutions have certainly shaken up the educational marketplace and caused us institutions who have always done things the way we do things because that's just the way you do things in education - to take a critical look out ourselves and re-examine what we do, why we do it, and whether there are alternative ways of doing it better.
 
How does it benefit Walmart? Well, here at MegaCorp in certain departments (not engineering) online degrees are encouraged. So there's a whole bunch of people with BAs and MBAs from university of phoenix. Sometimes I wonder if it's because the degree is so meaningless elsewhere. Only certain companies and certain departments are pro-for profit education. So you encourage that in your company, knowing it won't let your employees get on the market and command a higher pay. But you're still educating them beyond the minimum (usually like you said, at a MUCH MUCH higher cost).

Jim C reminds me of a lot of my coworkers. I work full time and go to school at a traditional, four year institution. I live about 20 miles away from work and school, with about 15 miles inbetween. It's not easy, certainly. But people like Jim come talk to me all the time and say things like "I really wish I could do that, but I can't." Well why can't you? what's holding you back? It's the whole, why don't people work out. There is no "oh I can't." It's usually "I choose not to make time for that" or "I'm too lazy" or "I'm not motivated enough." I took an evening language course at a community college and a coworker commented that he was "jealous" b/c he really wished he could that class! Of course there are something like six community colleges within my county and three major universities so I know geographically I'm at an advantage here, but more often than not people choose for-profit education because it's easier and asks less of them.
 
Relevant, in that it deals with the financial motivations (and behavior) of many for-profit higher ed institutions, this from the New York Post:

http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/subprime_goes_to_college_FeiheNJfGYtoSwmtl5etJP
 
Let me pose the question a slightly different way: Why would a HUGE company operating in 50 different states (each with a different system of higher education) and a wide range of communities (many without easy access to even a CC) as well as in foreign countries be interested in working with a single institution of higher education that operates (virtually) in every place they have a store? I can't imagine why they would choose that approach over negotiating an AS program with each of several thousand independent community colleges.

Can you?

It might make sense to us to wonder why our local store didn't contact our CC about tailoring a program to their needs, but that is because we think that WalMart has a person in each store assigned that task. That is not how their economies of scale operate.

Which brings us to Tuesday's question about general education: there are things a humanist might want to learn about economics and finance (although it might not be taught in the class you end up taking), just as there are places in a history class where you learn how sharecropping (or company towns) proved to be a better deal for the land owner than slavery had ever been.
 
@Dennis: True, but workers who aren't in company towns can have exactly the same problems: they're just unable to get affordable housing on the free market, and are deep in hock to Capital One instead.

There are many people who would prefer to have a sort of "unitary" life. Think about the stereotypical big-business employee in the 50's: 30 years, a pension, and a gold watch. Yes, you were locked in, but you didn't spend too much time worrying about where you'd find your next job, or what training you'd need to be sure you were still employable at 50. Some of us prefer uncertainty to constraints, but there are definitely people who like it the other way 'round. I work in a government facility, so believe me, I know whereof I speak.

Some people enjoy tweaking each part of their lives to maximum efficiency, and our society encourages that now, but for a lot of people it's very tiring and confusing. Wal-Mart is offering its employees the chance to get education without any extra "variables", if you will. The more independent ones may prefer to go elsewhere, but I bet a lot of people will be grateful for the chance. I don't see a reason to keep them from taking the opportunity.
 
At least they didn't start their own university. My first impression? That it would be low quality. Unfortunately, that's the reputation the conglomerate has.

Partnering with an established educational institution is something different altogether. Now there's credibility.

To date, NPR reports only 400 of the 1.4 million employees have jumped at the chance. Hopefully that number will rise. http://bit.ly/dxjHdg
 
I feel like you could probably teach a class on how to make a great blog.
 
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