Wal-Mart's Online Education Ploy.

A couple of weeks ago, Wal-Mart announced that it was partnering with a for-profit online university to allow its employees to enroll in management courses. It got a price reduction and employees will be able to use their on-the-job training and tasks to earn some credits.

One of the reasons Wal-Mart started the program is that it promotes retail associates to store managers often, but many of those employees do not have higher education degrees. That tells us one very important thing: Wal-Mart employees do not need, or at least haven't needed, higher education to be promoted within the stores. That means that, rather than helping employees climb up the ladder, these online degrees cement them in low-level, retail management positions. The only difference is that it requires them to spend money and time to advance even a little bit, making it a new barrier to upward mobility for the low-income workers Wal-Mart employees. 

It's not as if the university is free for employees, either. Wal-Mart's helping, but the students will still have to pay tuition to the company, American Public University, described by the Washington Post thusly:

American Public University is one of a growing number of so-called career colleges that operate on a for-profit model, rather than as state institutions or private foundations. APU's parent company is publicly traded and its reported revenue jumped 43 percent to $47.3 million during the most recent quarter, while profit rose 46 percent to $7.6 million.

Universities like this make money by promising easy routes to well-paying and doable careers that in the past really never required a formal degree: those in the culinary arts, massage therapy and support staff for medical and legal professionals. The growth in these programs just take advantage of students who don't have access to traditional non-profit college degrees.

Moreover, there's no evidence it helps them. It's hard to imagine that someone with a degree in retail management will never get higher than retail management, which for the most part is not a lucrative career. Not only does this not seem worth it, but a new report highlighted at the Poverty in America blog at Change.org notes that about ten percent low-income students who go to college are not going to jump out of the poverty threshold right away. So the long and short of it is, Wal-Mart has found another way to take money from people who can't afford it.

-- Monica Potts

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