Mouse ears for mortarboards: Disney offers hourly workers free tuition

The company behind the Happiest Place on Earth is bound to make its part-timers among the happiest employees on Earth with an enviable new benefit: free tuition for workers who want to earn college degrees, go back to high school or get other training.

The Walt Disney Company is offering to pay full tuition for its hourly workers who want to earn a college degree, finish a high school diploma or learn a new skill, the entertainment giant said Wednesday. Up to 80,000 employees could take advantage of the new benefit.

“I am incredibly proud that Disney is embarking on this historic launch,” Jayne Parker, senior executive vice president and chief HR officer for the Walt Disney Company, said in a company blog post.

The program, dubbed Disney Aspire, will cover 100% of tuition upfront and will also reimburse application fees and required books and materials, which Parker says “removes the worry of paying to start or continue school.”

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"Partners," a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, sits in front of Cinderalla Castle at Magic Kingdom, part of the Walt Disney World theme park and resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 31, 2009. Walt Disney Co. said it agreed to buy Marvel Entertainment Inc. for about $4 billion in a stock and cash transaction, gaining comic book characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man and Captain America. Photographer: Matt Stroshane/Bloomberg

The program — which is being administered by Denver-based Guild Education — is designed for working adults and offers Disney 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,” the company said. A network of schools and a range of degrees and disciplines — including college and master’s degrees, high school equivalency, English-language learning and vocational training — will be available for employees, Disney said.

Disney announced in January a $50 million initiative to create a higher education program for employees, but it hadn’t announced details about the program until this week.

Disney joins other large employers that have boosted education benefits for employees — sometimes going as far as paying their entire tuition — to entice and retain workers in a tight labor market.

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, said in May 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. Discover said earlier this summer that it will offer free college tuition as a benefit for its 16,500 employees. The credit card giant’s benefit allows the vast majority of its employees — full-time employees and part-time workers who work at least 30 hours a week are eligible — a full-ride online bachelor’s degree from three different universities: the University of Florida, Wilmington University and Brandman University.

Bright Horizons, a childcare company that serves more than 100,000 children at childcare centers throughout the country, announced its 20,000 employees will also be eligible for free associate’s or bachelor’s degrees at one of four online schools. Unlike Disney, Bright Horizons’ benefit is just for its full-time employees.

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. “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.”

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