Walmart (WMT), the largest private employer in the U.S., is making a big push to recruit high school students by offering them free standardized test prep, flexible work schedules, and debt-free college.
High school students currently make up less than 25,000 of the company's 1.4 million U.S.-based associates, according to the retail giant. But with student loan debt sitting at $1.5 trillion and fewer teens projected to enter the workforce, Walmart is trying to make itself a more attractive option for young workers.
"[We] know that high school students face challenges when it comes to work and education. We know that the cost of college remains a significant barrier for many high school students, and also leads to student loans and costly debt," Julie Murphy, the EVP of People, told Yahoo Finance in an interview.
Eligible teens will be given more predictable and flexible work schedules, in addition to free test prep courses for the ACT and SAT. After completing high school, those workers will be available for Walmart’s $1 a day college education benefit.
Up to 5,000 associates each year will be eligible
Almost a year ago, Walmart launched its $1 a day college program for its 1.4 million associates now known as “Live Better U.” To date, more than 7,500 Walmart associates have enrolled in the program, which the company said is ahead of expectations.
In addition to earning $1 a day college, the program also offers discounts on master’s degrees, and the ability to finish high school for associates and eligible relatives.
Walmart also said on Tuesday it would start providing financial bonuses for some of its associates who've never taken college credit before upon finishing the company's college program.
Up to 5,000 of its associates each year will be eligible for its Live Better U Scholar Awards, valued at $1,500 a piece.
"The award underscores Live Better U's focus on completion, celebrates the associate's achievements, and will offset — and in many cases pay back — the associate's $1 a day contribution to the program," the company said in a statement.
The initiatives come at a time when younger workers are grappling with surging education debt amid diminishing employment prospects. Meanwhile, Walmart has come under pressure for not compensating its workers adequately.
More than 300 of Walmart's current store managers started at the company as high school students. Hourly associates earn a starting wage of $11, and a store manager can earn up to $175,000 per year, the company recently revealed.
College credit at the Walmart Academy
The Walmart Academy, the retail giant’s in-house career training program, has provided the company with a template that “helps build confidence and helps to start to shape and form individual's work ethic, as well as knowledge of the business world and how they can navigate through the business world," Murphy said.
For the new program, Walmart partnered with Guild Education, a firm that helps companies offer education benefits to employees. Degrees were initially offered from three universities — University of Florida, Brandman, and Bellevue University — mostly because they cater to adult learners.
On Tuesday, the program added Southern New Hampshire University, Purdue University Global, and Wilmington University to its suite of schools.
For the program, Walmart has worked with the universities to tailor the content to make it more relevant to the work the associates are doing at the company. They also added more technology-focused degrees, as the nature of work continues to evolve.
Walmart now covers 14 technology degrees and certificates under its $1-a-day for college program, including cybersecurity, information technology, web applications development, to name a few.
The program already offered bachelor's degrees in business management and leadership, business administration, and business management (supply chain, transportation, and logistics management).
For associates looking to cut the $1 a day tuition costs down further, they can earn college credit at the Walmart Academy.
The free academies, located in the back of about 200 stores, teach associates customer service techniques, retail math, and how to use new technology, among other skills.
Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.