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Amazon offers free college program at EMU, HFCC

Amazon announced today that it will offer its employees free tuition at four Michigan post-secondary schools, including Eastern Michigan University, Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University and Henry Ford College. Free college tuition is part of the company’s Career Choice Program.

Today’s announcement is an expansion of a program announced earlier this year. Under the expanded program, employees can choose a degree program from among 180 US colleges and universities. Amazon chose its partners schools for their ability to understand and support adult learners.

Employees need to work only 90 days to qualify for educational benefits. Unlike other employer-based tuition assistance programs, Amazon will pay all program costs up-front on behalf of the employee. Most employer-sponsored tuition assistance programs require the employee to pay for classes and reimburse students only after they’ve completed a course.

Amazon currently employs about 25,000 people in Michigan. The company has corporate offices in Detroit, as well as multiple fulfillment centers and warehouses. In December, the company proposed a “last-mile” delivery hub in Ann Arbor. Last month, it announced plans for a similar facility in Ypsilanti.

In other words, Amazon has a substantial footprint in Southeast Michigan. Free college is an enticing bonus. It’s certainly a win for those four institutions. And no one has ruled out the possibility of a program expansion to include more schools.

But it means that a certain number of “Amazon students” might – under other circumstances – have enrolled at WCC. Competition for students just became harder than it already is. The program doesn’t give Amazon employees a reason to attend college; it gives employees a reason to attend specific colleges. (Unfortunately, WCC is not among them.

Free college program creates winners and losers

Amazon’s approach to its free college program creates winners and losers among institutions. I have no idea how many Amazon employees will take advantage of the benefit. But the free college benefit has the power to attract workers who may have wanted to attend college but could not (or did not). Amazon is now competing with higher education institutions for people who occupy WCC’s target demographic: adult learners. Where WCC sees students, Amazon sees workers.

Amazon is under no illusion that these workers will make a career out of working for it. In fact, Amazon doesn’t want these workers to stay. It wants them to move on to bigger and better things. Why? Because Amazon wants the next generation of relatively low – wage workers to fill most of its warehouse and distribution center positions. Unfortunately (for WCC), it means that these people will now end up in classrooms at EMU and Henry Ford College, at no monetary cost to them.

To compete, WCC will need to come up with strategies to entice county employers to pay for degree programs. Or it will need to offer highly competitive financial aid packages and services that help students make their way through their chosen field of study. Or both.

So, way-back-when, rather than asking county taxpayers to pay for a bond issue to pay for construction projects around campus, Trustee Richard Landau supported the application of a $10 per credit hour “facilities fee” instead. Of the students, Landau asked “Where are we going to lose them to?”

Well Richard, it looks like you’re going to lose them to Amazon.

Photo Credit: Tim Ereneta, via Flickr