Corporate partnerships offer college students tuition – and a cubicle

A little-noticed new approach helps employers to fill cubicles with reliable workers and universities to provide an alternative way to pay tuition.

Kim Raff/Hechinger Report
A call center near the University of Utah in Salt Lake City employs students through Education at Work. EAW arranges jobs with companies such as Microsoft and Discover using space in buildings provided by partnering universities.

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As students struggle with college costs and the strain of balancing work and school, the nonprofit Education at Work offers a new way of leveraging corporate America’s thirst for skilled talent and colleges’ desire to tout how well they prepare young people for careers.

Founded by a call-center executive, EAW sets up partnerships between universities and large employers to provide jobs. EAW employed 488 students on four campuses last year and has plans to expand to 1,521 by 2021. The companies pay EAW, which then pays the student workers, while the universities provide the office space. Students typically work 16 to 20 hours per week, the upper limit of what some experts say is acceptable during college. 

“This job kind of teaches you the stuff that school doesn’t teach you,” says Sera Ashman, a student at the University of Utah working on the Microsoft floor while she’s studying to become a video game designer. “I’m learning how to work with co-workers, how to work with a client, and meet deadlines.”

On the third floor of a downtown office building, Solomon Kalapala is chatting with a Microsoft customer on one computer screen while troubleshooting the customer’s misbehaving software on another.

“I’m basically running a repair,” says Mr. Kalapala. If the online fix doesn’t work, he explains, “I’ll do an uninstall and reinstall.”

Pink Floyd blares in the background as Mr. Kalapala goes about his work. His colleagues fill cubicles that stretch the length of the building, their workspaces adorned with the trumpery of office life – a mini basketball hoop, a life-size cutout of the main character in “The Big Lebowski.”

These aren’t typical call center employees, however. They’re among about 300 University of Utah students who have side jobs here arranged by a nonprofit called Education at Work. 

Founded by a call center executive, EAW sets up partnerships between universities and large employers to provide jobs like Mr. Kalapala’s. The employers get reliable employees and prospective hires while the universities can offer students a novel way to work for tuition and keep their loan debt low.

The students also get work experience, says Taylor Randall, dean of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.

“They learn a set of remarkable customer service skills,” says Mr. Randall. “In my mind, they learn it better here than they would just listening to it in the classroom.”

Kim Raff/Hechinger Report
Scott Blevins, senior vice president of university partnerships and student success at EAW, says the Salt Lake City office has ‘one of the highest customer satisfaction results’ Microsoft has seen on the consumer side of its business.

As students struggle with college costs and the strain of balancing work and school, EAW provides a little-noticed new way of leveraging corporate America’s thirst for skilled talent and colleges’ desire to tout how well they prepare young people for careers. The nonprofit employed 488 students on four campuses last year and has plans to expand to 1,521 by 2021.

Offering part-time corporate work can allow the school to say, “Yeah we’ve raised tuition, but guess what, we’ve got this program; you can pay for over half your education, in the University of Utah’s case,” says Mr. Randall. EAW’s University of Utah graduates end up with half the student loan debt of their peers, the organization reports.

An alternative to state funding 

Mr. Kalapala spends about 25 hours a week at his Microsoft customer support gig, a quick downhill trek from the university campus in the nearby foothills. It beats his previous job – a summer of cold-calling alumni for donations – which he says he hated.

He makes $9.75 an hour, which is higher than the state’s minimum wage. Other students here work for Discover Financial Services, where the pay starts at $10 an hour. All EAW student workers also get a scholarship of as much as $5,250 a year toward their tuition, depending on their grades and work attendance. Since EAW began operations in Utah in 2017, about 325 students have received $700,000 in tuition assistance, the organization says; so far Mr. Kalapara has netted $2,200 toward his tuition.

EAW has similar arrangements with Arizona State University, Northern Kentucky University, and Ohio’s Mount St. Joseph University. The companies pay EAW, which then pays the student workers, while the universities provide the office space. The University of Utah spends about $600,000 a year for the lease, utilities, and janitorial services for the three floors EAW occupies in the downtown Salt Lake City building.

The idea comes at a time when declining state support has pushed up tuition at Utah’s public universities. State funding per student here is down 18% since 2008, when adjusted for inflation. During that time, annual tuition and fees at the University of Utah rose from $5,285 to $9,222.

Students typically work 16 to 20 hours per week through EAW, the upper limit of what some experts say is acceptable during college. Research by an offshoot of the organization that administers the ACT college admissions test has found that students who work more than 15 hours a week are more likely to fall behind in their academic progress and not graduate on time.

But that also depends on how they use the rest of their time, says Judith Scott-Clayton, a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“If they’d be playing video games instead, then working is probably not worse and may well be better than that particular alternative,” says Ms. Scott-Clayton, who also directs the Economics and Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is an independent unit of Teachers College.) 

Mr. Randall says the kind of work students perform through EAW is not interfering with their education; it’s enhancing it.

“If we’re trying to get people ready for jobs, the more we can make school look and feel like the real world, at some point, the better” it is, he says. 

Kim Raff/Hechinger Report
Student employees in Salt Lake City work for corporations as part of the Education at Work initiative. Since EAW began operations in Utah in 2017, about 325 students have received $700,000 in tuition assistance, the organization says.

As for the companies’ largesse, it has an economic motive, says Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “These firms are not philanthropists. They’re not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. They’re actually looking at the bottom line.” 

As employees retire and companies seek to establish brand awareness with a new generation of consumers, businesses such as Microsoft and Discover “want to maintain a strong relationship with that potential flow of workers,” Ms. Smith says.

Benefits for businesses

Discover cites several benefits to employing students through EAW. Typical call-center employees want time off on evenings and weekends; those are times when students are most available to work.

“It works out to be perfect in terms of managing productivity,” says Tracy Hedrick, vice president of Discover’s Phoenix Operations Center where around 300 EAW students are employed through a partnership with Arizona State University. 

As for the quality of the students’ work, Scott Blevins, a senior vice president at EAW says the Salt Lake City office has “one of the highest customer satisfaction results” Microsoft has seen on the consumer side of its business. 

Accustomed to hitting the books daily for their classes, Ms. Hedrick says, students learn faster than traditional call-center employees.

For an age group more at ease typing into a phone than speaking, the EAW experience may help strengthen office skills. In fact, students are expected to leave their phones in lockers before starting their shifts. 

University of Utah student Khiyara Gassaway says working at the Discover call center “definitely helps with your patience when you’re dealing with difficult customers or trying to get that cardmember on the line.”

Kim Raff/Hechinger Report
University of Utah student Khiyara Gassaway works for Discover, calling credit-card holders who are delinquent on their payments.

Her job, like those of other students on the Discover floor, is to call Discover credit-card holders who are delinquent on their payments. The objective is to keep the customers on the line until they can be transferred to a financial specialist.

“This job kind of teaches you the stuff that school doesn’t teach you,” says Sera Ashman, an incoming junior working on the Microsoft floor while she’s studying at the university to become a video game designer. “I’m learning how to work with co-workers, how to work with a client, and meet deadlines.”

Mixed reaction from students  

The work isn’t for everyone. Some students at the university say they didn’t want to commit the time. Others say it doesn’t align with their career goals.

Nick Liddell, a 24-year-old accounting and finance major, works at the business school’s investment fund, where he develops financial models for companies and completes venture capital deals for startups that have a social impact. The position is unpaid, but Mr. Liddell considers it more valuable than “the short-term financial gain” of working at the call center.

Other students say they’ve benefited from their EAW stints. One landed a salaried job at Microsoft. Another, Zachery Gabaldon, says he’s making $17 an hour as a supervisor and is back to the healthy but more expensive vegetarian diet he had to give up while paying for college.

Ms. Hedrick at Discover says the company plans to hire EAW students not only in local customer service roles but also for jobs in business technology, math, or analytics at its Chicago headquarters.

“The relationship is so new we’ve not had really any graduates yet,” says Ms. Hedrick. Nonetheless, she adds, “We’ve got those resumes. We’re circulating them. We want to have some success stories with the recent graduates.”

In Arizona, 35% of the students participating in EAW last year were Hispanic and 15% were black. Ms. Hedrick says she sees an opportunity to “expand the diversity that we have within Discover from this pipeline.”

Mr. Kalapala, the student working tech support in Salt Lake City, credits his EAW job with Microsoft for helping him get a paid internship as a data architect for a large health care provider.

“I am very grateful for the experience,” he says. “This job gave me good leverage.” 

This story about Education at Work was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

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