UW-Milwaukee joins Amazon’s Tuition Assistance Program to serve new students

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee joined a small group of other Wisconsin schools this summer to partner with Amazon in a tuition relief deal that could put more students in place as the school is trying to stem the drop in enrolment.

The move makes sense for both parties, said Laura Pedrick, who leads UWM’s online training efforts and approached Amazon earlier this year to participate in the company’s program.

Amazon faces a tight labor market and sees tuition assistance for its hourly workers as a retention tool, she said.

UWM, which prides itself on enrolling a large number of low-income and first-generation students, knows how financial pressure can force some students to drop out or take longer to graduate. Amazon employees receiving up to $5,250 a year in company tuition reimbursement removes one of the biggest barriers to earning a college degree.

It’s no surprise that the other three Wisconsin schools participating in Amazon’s Career Choice program — Milwaukee Area Technical College, Gateway Technical College, and UW-Parkside — serve a similar student clientele.

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Geography also helps. Amazon has a huge fulfillment center in Oak Creek and several locations in Milwaukee, including a Prime Now hub, an Amazon Fresh location and a delivery station. The company also has a distribution center in Kenosha and plans to expand operations there.

Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Campos did not respond to a question asking whether other Wisconsin schools had expressed interest in partnering with the company.

Gateway joined the Amazon program in 2017 and has enrolled 274 students to date, spokesperson Lee Colony said.

MATC’s Amazon partnership began in the fall of 2020, with nearly 150 employees having participated so far, according to spokesperson Darryll Fortune.

The two technical colleges were part of a nationwide drive by the company to cover tuition for two-year associate degrees and certificates at select schools.

Amazon has expanded this year to also offer licensing programs. Of the 80,000 employees who have participated since the company’s Career Choice program launched in 2012, more than 25,000 have joined this year.

The company contacted UW-Parkside about the program, and it launched in January, university officials said. Sixteen Amazon employees have expressed interest and six have enrolled so far, with more expected for the fall semester. UW-Parkside is also considering inviting Amazon to offer classes directly at company facilities.

At UWM, all undergraduate programs are available to Amazon students. Tuition reimbursement for a full-time employee covers two classes per semester, Pedrick said.

The university encourages Amazon employees to complete the Federal Financial Aid Form, which can unlock more grants or scholarships in case they want to take additional courses.

Workers are eligible for education allowance after 90 days of employment.

Four Amazon employees signed up for UWM’s summer semester and one signed up for the UW Flex program, a skills-based educational approach where teaching is self-paced and students work on projects to obtain a certificate or diploma.

Pedrick expects enrollment to increase, although preliminary fall numbers were not available. She hopes the partnership will eventually bring in 500 students.

That would be huge for a university that has lost some 3,400 enrollments over the past five years.

Amazon is far from the first company to offer tuition assistance to its employees. In pre-Amazon deals, UWM also partners with Charter Communications, HATCO, UPS, and several other companies.

The opportunity to tap into one of the nation’s largest private employers is exciting, said Pedrick. Working adults often turn to online programming for its flexible schedule.

UWM has developed a national reputation in online education, offering more than 700 online courses each semester and 42 online degree and certificate programs. About 10,000 UWM students in any given semester take at least one online course, she said. Between 2,000 and 3,000 of them sign up for fully online schedules.

Higher education officials have long seen online education as the bridge connecting adult learners to the workforce skills that employers say they desperately need. A 2019 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimated that Wisconsin has as many as 662,000 working adults with some college credits but no degree.

“This partnership with Amazon is a great benefit for our students,” said Pedrick. “And that’s also an advantage for Milwaukee.”

Contact Kelly Meyerhofer at kmeyerhofer@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @KellyMeyerhofer.

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