What if tuition costs came free with employment, like healthcare benefits?
Dr. Jayson Boyers, the president of Cleary University in Michigan, has been asking himself that question.
Last week, Cleary launched a new partnership with Team Schostak, a family-owned restaurant group, to provide free tuition for restaurant employees.
“We believe there are channels that can make education accessible and create less of a burden on student debt if employers, industry, colleges and universities work together,” Boyers said. “We both have a vested interest in the workforce that can build up these companies and these communities, so why not work together to create that pathway?”
Through their employer, workers at Team Schostak Family Restaurants can now pursue associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees tuition-free on Cleary University’s online platform. The Tuition Benefits Program is available to all employees – including part-time and hourly employees – working in nearly 200 restaurants in five Midwest states.
Like healthcare benefits, employees’ significant others, children and grandchildren are eligible for free tuition, as well. Students apply for federal grants, and any leftover costs are covered by the program, which is financed by the Team Schostak-Cleary partnership.
To participate in the program, a Team Schostak employee or family member must be employed at least six months, work at least 20 hours a week, have a good-standing job-performance rating, be approved by a vice president and meet university application requirements.
Participating workers pay a registration fee of $500, which is waived after a year of employment.
“This is a way to improve the economic destinies for three generations of the American workforce,” Boyers says. “By including family members, we are improving household health and grooming next-level management. It’s a virtuous circle.”
Some Team Schostak students have already enrolled, and Boyers expects to welcome a couple hundred students from the program this academic year. He hopes that number will eventually grow to a couple thousand.
The program was announced on the heels of Team Schostak’s acquisition in May of 56 Wendy’s restaurants in Michigan, adding 1,700 workers to its company employee roster. The Livonia, Mich.-based corporation also includes eight Del Taco restaurants, 13 MOD Pizza shops, 28 Olga’s Kitchen eateries and 65 Applebee’s establishments.
Cleary is working on partnerships with several other companies this fall. The Howell, Michigan-based school hopes to use the same tuition benefits to develop similar programs with businesses in the automotive, logistics and hotel and resort industries.
“The success of our organization is rooted in our people,” said Mark Schostak, executive chairman of Team Schostak Family Restaurants. “We are committed to training and developing our people, and we are proud to extend that same benefit to their family members with the Tuition Benefits Program. By fostering a platform for our team to continue their education, we are investing in our state and its future leaders.”
As student demographics change, colleges and universities can’t use “the same model we’ve been using over the last century or two for cost structure,” Boyers said.
Adult students now outnumber students under the age of 25. They’re often already in the workforce, and they feel they can’t afford to go into debt.
“This is about the relationship between higher education and the workforce,” Boyers said. “There is not a viable pathway for people on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale to achieve higher education without creating a sinkhole of debt. This is about partner and prosper – for all involved. Higher education can and should change its tuition model. We cannot be afraid about survival and cling to old ways of doing things that no longer serve any of us.”
This program isn’t unique, according to Martin Van Der Werf, associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
Five years ago, Starbucks partnered with Arizona State University to provide employees with free tuition. Southern New Hampshire University also offers tuition benefits for employees from major companies such as Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds, The Gap, Comcast, Aetna and more.
But Van Der Werf hasn’t seen programs like this on a local level. The Cleary University Tuition Benefits Program shows that using a benefit model for tuition is “starting to filter down to more regional companies.”
“It was a pretty innovate thing for both this university to do and the company to do,” he said. “It’s a pretty entrepreneurial approach by both of them.”
Van Der Werf emphasized that programs like this are an advantage for companies, especially if they have to stay competitive in a landscape where other employers offer free tuition. Good benefits motivate good employees to stay.
They also help universities like Cleary find new students.
“The majority of the people who work in these restaurants probably are adults who might have limited or no college experience,” Van Der Werf said. “So, it allows this university to tap into a market they wouldn’t otherwise get.”
That market could be students who didn’t consider going to college at all. Research shows that 56 percent of employees who earn a degree paid for by their company say they would not have pursued higher education without their employer’s help.
“One of the things we see in data about people in relatively low-wage, low-skill jobs is that they didn’t attend college, oftentimes for fear of going into debt, or they just never had the up-front money in the first place,” he said. “So, the opportunity to go to college might not have been something they considered had their company not offered them this benefit.”
As the country struggles to curb student debt, Van Der Werf thinks initiatives like Cleary University’s Tuition Benefits Program are a step in the right direction.
“One way to save on debt is to never have any,” he said. “Against all other options, this is a pretty darn good one.”