Discover’s latest volley in talent war: free college tuition

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Discover is the latest company vying to win over top talent with an enviable employee benefit: free college tuition.

The fourth largest U.S. credit card company is offering its 16,500 employees the chance to earn a full-ride bachelor’s degree online from three different universities: the University of Florida, Wilmington University and Brandman University. Dubbed the Discover College Commitment, the benefit covers tuition and required fees, books and supplies for its employees.

“To have a great company, it’s our job to provide opportunities for employees to evolve,” says Jon Kaplan, Discover’s vice president of training and development. “Unemployment is currently at 3.8%, and in order to be competitive in the job market, we need to step up and provide benefits that are distinctive.”

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About 99% of the company’s employees will qualify for the benefit, including full-time employees and part-time workers who work at least 30 hours a week, Kaplan says. Discover expects a number of its customer call center employees, many of whom do not have a college degree, to take advantage of the benefit.

In addition to its role in recruiting and retaining talent, Kaplan says offering its workers the perk is simply “the right thing to do.”

“We want to invest and develop our employees,” he says. “We feel that providing a no-cost college education to employees will not only help each employee that takes part, but the company overall.”

The benefit has no tenure requirement, so employees can start participating as soon as they want to, regardless of how long they have been with the company, Discover says. That includes new employees on their first day.

Discover is the latest in a string of companies to enhance education benefits in an increasingly competitive labor market. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, said last month that its 1.5 million employees can now pursue associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in business or supply-chain management at three nonprofit schools for $1 a day.

Kroger said in April it will offer employees up to $3,500 annually for continuing education and development, including a high school equivalency exam, professional certifications and advanced degrees. The benefit, which can run to $21,000 over the course of employment, will cover all full- and part-time associates after six months on the job.

Chick-fil-A, Hulu, Lowe’s, McDonald’s and Taco Bell also have boosted education benefits since the beginning of the year.

“HR leaders have historically thought of benefits as a cost center,” says Rachel Carlson, CEO of Guild Education, the education benefits platform partnering with Discover to manage the benefit. “But when companies do the math, it’s cheaper to invest in the college education of a current employee than to watch that employee walk out the door. That’s why more and more companies are launching fully funded college degree programs.”

Guild Education also will offer employees academic counseling and help in finding the right program.

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