The Walt Disney Company announced this week that it is now offering to pay full tuition for its hourly workers to earn a college degree, complete a high school diploma, or learn a new skill. In a blog post on the company’s website, Jayne Parker, senior executive vice president & chief HR officer, called the “Disney Aspire” initiative “the most comprehensive program of its kind,” adding that it would cover 100 percent of tuition upfront and reimburse employees for application fees and required books and materials. The program covers a wide range of educational endeavors, she noted:
The program is designed for working adults and offers our Cast Members and employees maximum choice and flexibility with their studies, regardless of whether the program and classes they choose are tied to their current role at Disney. Disney Aspire includes a network of schools that offer a wide array of disciplines and diplomas—including college and master’s degrees, high school equivalency, English-language learning, vocational training and more.
More than 80,000 Disney employees are eligible to participate in the program, which the company is implementing in partnership with Guild Education, an online adult education platform that helps companies provide tuition assistance and other education benefits. Other US employers with large numbers of hourly workers have partnered with Guild to provide tuition benefits, including the fast food chains Chipotle and Taco Bell, the retail giant Walmart, and the home improvement retailer Lowe’s. McDonald’s expanded its education benefit, a partnership with Cengage Learning, earlier this year, while Chick-fil-A increased the number of scholarships it was awarding though its longstanding annual program.
Disney is another huge get for Guild, which has been rapidly expanding its portfolio of major corporate clients over the past year and is also partnering with gig economy companies like Lyft to figure out how to offer these benefits to workers on their platforms. Last month, TechCrunch reported that Guild had raised a $40 million funding round, led by Felicis Ventures, with participation by Salesforce Ventures, Workday Ventures, Rethink Impact & Education, and Silicon Valley Bank:
The company says its programs are currently available to 2.5 million working adults and gives access to classes, programs and degrees at more than 90 universities and learning providers.
“Most of our companies see an ROI on the employee investment within the first year or two,” CEO Rachel Carlson said. “Here’s why: on an incremental basis, our programs simply need to cost less than the cost of losing a high performing employee and hiring and training their replacement. We accomplish that by partnering with affordable, nonprofit universities and focusing with them on dual retention: helping employees succeed at school and at work… Companies with frontline workforces struggle with annual turnover rates well above 50%. So for our companies, a 4-year retention rate is a phenomenal outcome, and they’re thrilled to see that employee move on to their next job after completing a degree.”
Like other US employers, Disney is facing a labor market in which even entry-level and hourly employees are harder to attract and retain. Education benefits are becoming more popular precisely because they are an effective way to bolster employee loyalty and improve retention. Disney’s labor market challenge was also on display earlier this year, when the company announced that it was offering unusually large signing bonuses to attract seasonal workers to its Walt Disney World resorts in Florida for the busy summer.