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Are We Approaching a Day When Big Companies Have More College Students than Colleges Themselves?”

Will employer-offered education benefits become for the 21st century what healthcare benefits became in the 20th century?

With employer spending on professional development growing by more than 10% annually since the Great Recession, and rises in tuition rates outpacing growth in family income, investment in employees’ education has become a conversation more employees want to have and more employers are willing to have. Rather than posing a threat to the higher ed ecosystem, these programs present an opportunity to expand the pipeline with employees who would otherwise not go back to begin or finish a degree. And with more companies talking up their programs, it’s safe to say that if universities don’t get on board, they’re going to miss out on what someone else will take.

To better understand these programs and their implications, we spoke with Bonny Simi, the President of JetBlue Technology Ventures and the founding project director of JetBlue Scholars. (This builds on a conversation we had with ASU’s Phil Regier, who heads their recent partnership with Starbucks; you can read more on that here.)

Getting It All Started

It began several years ago when Bonny’s husband came home from a long day at work: A fireman, he wanted to go back to college and earn his degree. His employer was willing to help sponsor him, and after putting in his time and effort, he earned his degree. As Vice President for Talent Acquisition at JetBlue, Bonny began to envision a future where employers played a bigger role in offering wrap-around education benefits. More than just financial assistance, this would include success coaching, helping employees organize their coursework and persist towards a degree. She put her ideas into a proposal, got the approvals she needed, and in April of 2015, the JetBlue Scholars program was born.

Starting as a pilot, JetBlue recently scaled its program company-wide as of January 2016. Although many companies (particularly those in the Fortune 500) invest in professional development, few have taken it to the next level like JetBlue. Driven by a mission for constant learning, JetBlue now offers a sponsored pathway to a college degree for thousands of it employees (or as they call them, Crewmembers) through its JetBlue Scholars program. Qualifying Crewmembers (i.e., those who have worked at JetBlue for at least 2 years, have at least 15 college credits, and are in good standing) can take JetBlue-approved courses online for college credits, learning at their own pace and in their own way. After a capstone at a partner university as part of their final semester, students graduate with a bachelor’s. JetBlue pays for the credits in-between the first 15 and the final capstone, and offers discounts and scholarships for the latter.

The Goal for JetBlue: To Keep Their Employees Learning

Bonny is quick to note that, as a career pathway, the airline industry is unique: many people come to work right out of high school (such as starting as a bag handler), and work their way up through large companies. For those who enter before completing a degree, many end up dropping out of college due to a work schedule that just does not align with a traditional degree program. This creates, as Bonny describes, a sense in those employees of “I’m not complete”, even though many go on to develop successful careers in the industry. In fact, many of the participants in the Scholars program are senior leaders at JetBlue: one graduate, who oversees 75 city managers and was the first cohort’s commencement speaker, had never finished an associate degree.

Realizing the expectations, life experiences, and personal goals of their audience, JetBlue built a program that helps instills in students a greater sense of self-worth. Explains Bonny, “The industry does a good job of teaching the necessary skills, like how to handle bags and how to supervise. We wanted something that contributed to our Crewmembers’ self-worth, that kind that comes with learning and recognition of that learning. For example, we recognize that oral communication is a critical skill for every Crewmember, and the process of getting a college degree makes you a better communicator.”

In addition to improving the Crewmember’s experience and abilities, this program also reinforces what JetBlue stands for. Described as “one of the best companies to work for” by Forbes, JetBlue has a lot to live up to when it comes to their Crewmembers. This places a challenge on the company “to think of things creatively,” Bonny argued, “as we still have a startup mindset and need to be innovative.” Rather than just giving employees money to go back to school (which doesn’t often work) and yet wanting to support a pathway to education, the Scholars program hits a happy medium. By focusing on those who already have some college experience, JetBlue can focus on a process that helps students persist to a degree in meaningful ways, such as buying books and having a one-stop-shop advisor.

What’s Next?

With their first cohort on track to graduate this September, and having only recently scaled the program company-wide, JetBlue already has its eyes on the evolving landscape of employer education benefits:

Scaling up

Currently, the program is only a pathway to an associate degree and/or a bachelor’s, as their self-contained nature makes them ineligible for post-baccalaureate work. Opportunities like the new EQUIP program will experiment with whether educational initiatives can and should evolve beyond college. Bonny notes that, “if universities don’t start constructing these things, they will lose out. They need to embrace the alternative credit movement because students, moving forward, are becoming more non-traditional.” And research backups this assertion: 1 in 3 students have credits from at least two institutions, and 1 in 4 have credits from more than two institutions.


Employers as partners to universities, not threats

With 500 participants, the Scholars program feels like a small college. Yet as a pathway, Bonny estimates that only a few (less than 5%), would have dropped out from another institution to join the program. Rather than taking students away from schools, Bonny argues that her programs in fact adds students to the pipeline. If more schools accepted these credits, it could allow JetBlue and other corporate sponsors to expand their offering, ever increasing that pipeline of students to universities.


Growth in education benefits packages for employees

Bonny stated that she regularly gets call requests to interview and give talks about the Scholars program, a trend that has only increased as more Crewmembers participate. Many large corporations, like Walmart, Target, McDonalds, and others with a high-proportion of hourly workers, are interested in developing such education packages for their employees. Other examples of this work include Strayer@Work and College for America, both built around the principle of employers investing in employee skills, knowledge, and mindsets. As exemplified by JetBlue, participants become stronger employees, with higher engagement and greater retention rates. This last improvement is especially striking considering that the JetBlue program, like Starbucks’s plan with ASU as well as others, do not require beneficiaries to remain with that employer, even after graduation.


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