Following promising employee feedback on its expanded education benefits in 2015, Chipotle Mexican Grill has taken another step to higher education accessibility: It has added the University of Denver to its roster of more than 80 colleges and universities to which employees have access through a partnership with Guild Education, a technology company that connects workers to universities as an education benefit strategy.

Through Guild Education’s reduced-cost courses and degree programs, both hourly and salaried Chipotle employees have access to more than 2,000 classes and programs in their pursuit of undergraduate or graduate degrees, college-level education, a GED, or mastery of English as a second language. Combined with the Mexican chain’s education benefit of up to $5,250 in tuition reimbursement, employees can pay as little as $250 per year to take college courses.

“Our goal in offering really strong educational benefits to our employees is to help prepare them for long-term and fulfilling careers,” says Chipotle Chairman, CEO and founder Steve Ells. “A year into the program, we are hearing tremendous feedback from our employees and seeing strong results in terms of enrollment, retention and internal promotions among employees who are participating in the program.”

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

Since the benefit became available to the entire workforce in 2015, Chipotle has provided financial assistance to nearly 3,500 employees. The partnership with Guild Education, which began in 2016, also aims to help Chipotle in retaining employees — a common problem in the food industry, which deals with a lot of turnover.

Guild Education’s technology platform allows Chipotle employees to log into the mobile-enabled, web-based portal to search through a catalog of classes, says Rachel Carlson, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education.

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Rather than pay between $2,000 and $4,000 per student acquisition in advertising, she says, colleges and universities pay for Guild Education’s coaches and advisers, who help employees manage their education and work responsibilities.

Guild Education also facilitates payments between colleges and universities and the employer, a growing trend in tuition reimbursement benefits. Typically, an employee needs to pay the upfront tuition costs and will receive a reimbursement from their employer upon course completion.

For employees working a minimum-wage job, finding $3,000 to $5,000 to pay up front is nearly impossible, Carlson says. Six in 10 Americans have less than $500 in their savings account, which limits the number of employees who could spring for part-time classes.

Guild tracks employee progress weekly and provides quarterly and long-term aggregated reports to employers, she adds. Those reports include internal retention rates and ROI, but also provide industry benchmarks. Guild Education works with employers such as Taco Bell, Public Service Credit Union and kidney dialysis centers company DaVita, and those workers are part of a 65,000-person control group for comparison, Carlson says.

In the first nine months — an academic year — of Chipotle’s partnership with Guild Education, 89% of 547 employees continued working at the Mexican chain, according to the data; prior to the program’s implementation, the retention baseline was only about 50%.

Likewise, Chipotle employees enrolled in the program are two to three times more likely to be promoted, compared to their peers who are unenrolled in the program, according to the data.

Chipotle isn’t the only restaurant chain that recently enhanced its education benefits. McDonald’s supersized its education benefits to offer employees a chance to earn a high school diploma – not a GED – in a partnership with Cengage’s Career Online High School; and Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shops also served up an additional skills-based online class in August that is built around unconscious bias.

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