January 22, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In an era when hundreds of thousands of young people labor under the spectre of crushing student debt, a solution for many may lie on a college campus just south of Omaha.

Over the past two decades, Bellevue University has developed various corporate learning programs as part of its strategic partnerships with local and national businesses.

Essentially, it means Bellevue provides educational programs these companies need. Employees of the corporations enroll in these programs and take the corresponding classes, making them more useful employees to the companies.

In return, the companies fund part or all of their employee’s education, allowing them to graduate with little or no student debt.

For many of these employees, attending college would be difficult without this aid.

“Since college tuition has been really expensive, I kind of didn’t want to do it. But since this opportunity came, I decided, ‘why not?’” says Felicia Gadberry, 29, a Walmart associate and participant in the program.

The students need the education, and with baby boomers retiring at a rapid rate, businesses need the trained workers.

“Right now in the United States we are losing about 10,000 people per day to retirements,” says Jim Nekuda, Bellevue University’s vice president of strategic partnerships. “With that loss in the labor market, it has created a gap in talent because there is not enough people to fill these positions. So organizations have had to get a little more savvy on how to recruit and how to retain these employees.”

The lightening of their financial load is not the only thing that motivates students, Nekuda says. Their next priority tends to be professional development. Students are looking for employers willing to invest in them.

Bellevue works with some companies to develop specific programs.

For example: to take advantage of the tuition program at Walmart, a student must enroll  in either the school’s supply chain, transportation, and logistics management program, or the business leadership and management program. The already-existing programs were revamped in cooperation with the company to satisfy a need—business managers and leaders who understand the
supply chain.

“The learning centers around what is going on at Walmart,” Nekuda says. “They are able to translate what they use in the classroom the very next day on the job.”

Gadberry, a supply chain, transportation, and logistics management student, says that was a big benefit.

“I’m in class with different Walmart employees as well…and they are also talking about their experiences,” she says. “It’s giving me an idea of what other Walmarts are like.”

In other cases, companies will fund their employee’s education without regard to what kind of degree they pursue. Employees at Disney can enroll in any program under their benefits structure.

“Their focus was on, ‘We want this to be a good benefit for our cast members. We want them to get an education. We want to help them,’” Nekuda says.

It was the same with Chipotle, he says. The company knows it will have a difficult time holding onto employees once they graduate. But it wanted to do something to help them as part of its corporate social responsibility mission.

“They want to educate the workforce no matter where they go,” Nekuda says. “But many [students working for these companies] do stay and they are loyal to the company because that organization invested in them.”

While these efforts could be construed as public relations, most of the conversations between Bellevue and the companies revolve around corporate social responsibility and an educated workforce.

A big benefit to the business is saving money on recruiting. “When they don’t have to spend $5-to-$10,000 because someone leaves, they are saving money,” Nekuda says.

Rod Sanders, vice president of talent management at Marco’s Pizza agrees: “If that incentivizes them to stay even a month or two longer, that’s a big benefit to us in this tight labor market.”

Which makes the amount the companies spend on education seem worthwhile. What companies contribute to the education of their employees depends on the company. Some only offer $1,000 per year and others pay for everything. For Walmart associate Gadberry, the company is covering the majority of the cost of her education. She pays $5 per week throughout the semester. Disney pays for all costs associated with an employee’s college degree at Bellevue.

The same is true for post-graduation  requirements. Some companies ask their employees to stay for a year or two after graduating. Others, like Marco’s Pizza, have no post-graduation requirements.

For the Toledo-based chain, the relationship with Bellevue has the potential to pay off as the rapidly growing company increases its number of corporate employees. And Sanders sees Bellevue as a potential source of training for human resources and other subjects at the undergraduate and graduate level.

“They have a very good reputation,” he says of the university. “It adds a sense of security and comfort, having them as an educational partner.”

These programs aren’t just for undergraduate students. Bellevue’s MBA program has 19 different concentrations, many of which were developed in conjunction with companies such as First Data and PayPal. Other master’s degrees were started through different corporate partnerships.

“They had a need,” Nekuda says. “Most of their workforce already had bachelor’s degrees, but they needed [people with] advanced degrees.”

And for the students, the benefits are more than monetary.

“It’s making me look at my work better,” Gadberry says. “It’s giving me more ideas on how to be a better employee.”

Thanks to her degree, “I feel like I’ll be more knowledgeable later on in life,” she says.


Visit bellevue.edu for more information.

This article was printed in the February/March 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Jim Nekuda, Bellevue University’s vice president of strategic partnerships