Employees at Wal-Mart will soon be able to sign up for undergraduate classes through a partnership with the for-profit American Public University, Wal-Mart announced yesterday. It’s an innovative program, to be sure, but not without its dangers, especially when it comes to the expanding role for-profit universities play in the lives of low-income students.
In keeping with the buy-in-bulk-sell-for-cheap ethos of the company, classes will of course be discounted. The program will take 15 percent off course fees for Wal-Mart employees in good standing in areas like retail management and logistics. According to the NY Times, at least 200,000 people who work as cashiers, unloaders and managers will be able use training they receive at Wal-Mart as credit toward as much as 30 percent of the units needed for an associate’s degree. “It came out of an awareness that the jobs in our stores are really good jobs,” Wal-Mart Executive Vice President Tom Mars told the Times.
Still, with the efficient coursework and discounted pricing, an American Public University associate’s degree will put Wal-Mart employees back $11,700. And a B.A. will cost $24,000. The new program will certainly be a boon to APU, a privately owned company with a current enrollment of 70,000.
During the recession, for-profit colleges and universities, often called FPCU’s, have seen their enrollment skyrocket, even though they rarely deliver on their promises of higher wages and better job prospects after graduation. They’re the fastest growing segment of higher education, with enrollment expanding at three times the rate of traditional schools.
Along the way, they’ve also recruited at homeless shelters and on military bases. ColorLines covered the common practice among FPCU’s of targeting students of color, who make up fifty percent of the FPCU industry’s student population. (Turns out Wal-Mart does something similar when it comes to finding its own workforce.)
Because without low-income students—and taxpayers who bankroll these operations—for-profit schools wouldn’t exist. According to the Department of Education, two years ago students at for-profit trade schools received $3.2 billion in Pell grants—the federal grants available to low-income students—and by 2012, FBCU students will probably be getting more than $10 billion in Pell grants.
Some FPCU’s get as much as 80 percent of their revenue from federal loans and grants. At the end of the day though, it’s students that end up being saddled with tens of thousands in debt that’s notoriously impossible to get out of. Of course, students from all kinds of institutions graduate college with increasing levels of debt these days—but most schools don’t get by on big promises and federal aid money alone.
Is some education better than none at all? Definitely. What remains to be seen is whether the program will be worth the cost for employees. It might be a Wal-Mart bargain, but given for-profit universities’ track record, it’s very likely a ripoff too.