03:22 AM

Bellevue University works with Walmart, Disney, other companies to recruit students

By Rick Ruggles / World-Herald staff writer

Half of the students who attend Bellevue University come to the college through partnerships forged with businesses and community colleges across the nation.

Bellevue University has carved out a niche by forming dozens of these partnerships, bringing a steady supply of generally older students — some of them already in the workforce.

Walmart this year chose Bellevue to be one of three colleges in the country that would serve employees who pay only $1 a day for their schooling while continuing to work for Walmart.

Bellevue says it also has partnerships of various kinds with Arby’s, Dollar General, Marco’s Pizza and many other companies. Bellevue University just announced that it has teamed up with the Walt Disney Co. to serve Disney employees.

The college receives a source of students and tuition paid by the companies. The companies provide a benefit that may keep employees around in a tight labor market. And the employees get to attend college and beef up their skills and résumés without accruing a pile of debt.

"It’s very fulfilling to be able to say I’m doing this, I’m finally doing this," said Sara Smith, a Walmart worker in Mineral Wells, Texas, who is studying business management and leadership. Smith, 25, said getting a college degree now is possible for her. She choked up at the thought.

"It’s always been something I’ve wanted."

Bellevue University has found that it doesn’t have to spend a great deal on national advertising because its partners keep the students coming. Many colleges and universities have relationships with a few businesses, but typically not nearly as many as Bellevue.

Jim Nekuda, Bellevue’s vice president for strategic partnerships, said the university can apply the savings from marketing to matching many companies’ $5,250 a year per student tuition payout.

About 50 percent of Bellevue University’s enrollment stems from the partnerships with businesses, organizations and community colleges. Bellevue said it enrolled 9,387 students this fall, and 671 were through the Walmart program.

"We are unique in the way we’ve done that," said Jim Grotrian, executive vice president of operations at the university. "We’re out there on our own, carving out our own path to success in this day and age."

Most of the students resulting from the partnerships do their coursework online from around the country. Bellevue President Mary Hawkins said her college has the benefit of having provided online courses for more than 20 years.

The college also has a history of serving older students who are in the workforce or seek to get back into the workforce. Four out of five of its students are 25 or older.

"We decided to differentiate ourselves around partnerships and relationships," Hawkins said.

Bellevue University has partnerships with about 50 companies and organizations, such as Boys Town, and about 45 community colleges, from California to New York. It also works with four Air Force bases — Offutt in Bellevue, Fairchild in Washington, Mountain Home in Idaho and Hurlburt Field in Florida.

Bellevue University’s eight-year graduation rate (that is, students who have graduated within eight years of entering) for all students — part-timers, full-timers, transfers — is 39.5 percent. Utah-based Western Governors University, a similar kind of college that Bellevue sometimes compares itself to, has the same graduation rate.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha, a different kind of university with many first-time, full-time students, has an eight-year graduation rate of 48.9 percent. The Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education provided the graduation-rate data.

Bellevue University said it has a comparatively small set of first-time, full-time students, so Bellevue’s graduation rate will naturally look different from a school with many first-time, full-time students.

When Walmart associates choose to study through the partnership, the company requires the employees to major in either business or supply chain management. The two other colleges with $1-a-day partnerships with Walmart are the University of Florida and California-based Brandman University.

Walmart’s U.S. CEO, Greg Foran, said when the program was announced in May: "We know training and learning opportunities empower associates to deliver for customers while growing and advancing in their careers."

Walmart employee Felicia Gadberry of Omaha said she wanted to return to college. "I was just looking for the right time, and (wondering) if I had enough money," said Gadberry, 29.

Working full-time and attending college online is by no means easy. "It can be hectic, but it’s just because I haven’t really been writing papers in a long time," Gadberry said.

Bellevue works with a Denver-based firm called Guild Education that helps bring students, companies and colleges together. Guild works with numerous Fortune 1000 companies to find the kinds of educational programs those companies desire for their workers.

Guild, founded in 2015, said the corporations are focused on education for working adults. "Bellevue has a long history of working with corporate partners," said Terrence Cummings, a Guild vice president. "We’ve been working with them for a couple years now."

Guild also provides "coaches" to help employees with application and enrollment details.

In many instances, Bellevue University matches $5,250 in tuition assistance provided by a businesses. Bellevue said a full-time online undergrad pays about $12,450 in tuition annually if there is no assistance. Federal Pell grants and other aid can make up the difference.

Sarpy County government this summer announced a tuition assistance program for its employees that includes $2,500 a year for employees’ immediate family members.

Bellevue University has a staffer in an office at Northeast Community College in Norfolk and at many of its partner community colleges. The staff member based at Northeast, Amanda Avidano, said she provides outreach and recruits about 50 Northeast students a year to Bellevue University.

Avidano said Bellevue is generous in its recognition of Northeast class credits for transfer to Bellevue, a key element in its relationships with other community colleges, too.

Hawkins said Bellevue isn’t there to lure students away from Northeast. Bellevue wants students to finish their two-year degrees at Northeast.

Northeast President Michael Chipps said he has worked in Nebraska community colleges for 39 years, including at Central Community College and Mid-Plains Community College. Chipps said he has partnered with Bellevue for many of those years.

"What Bellevue said they would do, they did," Chipps said. "They’re very innovative."

Texan Sara Smith went to a community college after high school, but it didn’t work out.

Through the Walmart-Bellevue University partnership, she is back in school, studying online. She had never heard of Bellevue University before the Walmart educational program started, she said.

But when she graduates, she intends to travel to Bellevue to pick up her diploma.