Walmart is offering its employees college educations for $1 a day

College material.
College material.
Image: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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Walmart will subsidize the college education of its 1.5 million US associates, the most recent effort by the retailer to rebrand itself as an employee-friendly company.

The benefit is available to all workers employed at Walmart for at least 90 days, the company announced today. Associates can take online classes toward associates’ or bachelors’ degrees in business or supply-chain management at one of three non-profit universities. The institutions—the University of Florida, Brandman University (in Irvine, Califronia), and Bellevue University (in Nebraska)—were chosen for their experience working with adult learners. Walmart will subsidize tuition, fees, and books, and provide education coaching. Employees are asked to contribute the equivalent of $1 a day, but the program is designed to produce debt-free graduates.

Walmart isn’t the first employer to offer free or subsidized college education to its employees—Starbucks announced a similar program with Arizona State in 2014—but it surely is the biggest. The benefit fits into CEO Doug McMillon’s campaign to transform Walmart’s reputation from that of a notoriously harsh employer to one of a modern, progressive company in an effort to woo customers and employees as it battles Amazon.

The college plan builds on a program Walmart announced in 2016 to offer high school equivalency classes to employees and their families, and a company-wide training initiative through 200 academies it’s opening across the US. As part of the college program, hours spent training at the academies can be applied to university credit.

The new college benefit might help slow the massive employee exodus the company experiences each year. Walmart hires 600,000 workers annually, and the more it invests in training them, the more eager it is for them to stay longer than a year. Walmart invested $2.7 billion over 2015 and 2016 to raise wages, in part to reduce turnover. The promise of debt-free college tuition may encourage workers to stick around a little longer, too.