Amazon.com, Inc. has added two Central Arkansas colleges to its educational assistance program, making it easier for hourly workers in the area to attain degrees at no cost.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Pulaski Technical College are the first higher education institutions in the state to join Amazon’s “Career Choice” program, giving warehouse and distribution workers access to more than 180 accredited degree programs in the state.
The e-commerce retailer is one of several employers in recent years to offer tuition benefits for workers as education costs continue to rise, alleviating a large barrier of entry for those wanting a degree or certification.
Kindle Holderby, assistant vice chancellor of enrollment at UALR, said a program like this is life-changing for hourly workers at Amazon.
“We’re thrilled to have it on board and look forward to working with them to better serve students,” Holderby said.
An Amazon fulfillment center opened in North Little Rock last year, bringing hundreds of jobs to the area.
Under the program, Amazon will set aside a certain amount of money that employees can access each year to pay for books and tuition with academic partners who have agreed to discount their costs and fees.
Holderby said other employers in the Little Rock area have tuition benefits programs with the university, but not to the degree Amazon has. Some programs require employees to apply for the benefit or get tapped for a management position to be eligible for tuition perks.
“As long as you are an employee there, you are basically eligible for this,” he said about Amazon’s program.
The Career Choice program, formed in 2012, was created as a recruitment tool for Amazon. Since its inception, more than 50,000 Amazon workers have participated in the program, preparing them to be mechanics, truck drivers, medical assistants and more, according to the company’s website. In addition to bachelor’s and associate degrees, workers can use the funds for GEDs and ESL proficiency certifications.
Employers such as Apple, Disney, McDonald’s and Target offer some form of tuition reimbursement for workers. In August, Walmart expanded its benefits to cover 100% of college tuition and books for workers through its Live Better U program. In September, Amazon said it would offer full college tuition for hourly employees in the U.S. starting January 2022.
Summer DeProw, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Pulaski Technical College, said there is no limit on the field of study Amazon workers choose to pursue. If someone wants to be a nurse and has to do clinical rotations, DeProw said, Amazon will be flexible with what its workers need.
“They are not just telling their workers to take their classes online so they can get back to work,” she said.
For the program, full-time Amazon employees who work or reside in Arkansas are eligible for up to $5,250 in annual tuition and fee assistance at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Pulaski Technical College, according to each school’s enrollment website. Part-time employees are eligible for up to $2,625. The funds reset at the start of each calendar year.
Holderby said that would be enough for workers to take a few classes a semester while maintaining a full-time job. At that pace, he estimated it would take six to seven years to complete a four-year degree.
In addition to tuition funds, Amazon workers are eligible for Pell grants and scholarships, making it possible for them to earn money for going to school, DeProw said.
“Pulaski Technical College wants to be a service to the community, and with Amazon’s partnership that can be even greater,” she said.
Since the announcement was made Monday, an estimated 52 Amazon workers have applied for classes at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Pulaski Technical College declined to disclose its figures, but DeProw said enrollment is increasing each day.