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?