SUNDAY EDITION | 20 years, thousands of degrees: UPS' college program enters third decade
UPS' Metro College has been paying for nighttime workers in Louisville to go to college for 20 years. A look at the program and how it compares to others at employers like Walmart and Starbucks.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For Angelica McBride, a full night’s sleep is overrated. She’s used to three-hour increments.
“I don’t really ever get a full 6 to 7 hours at a time,” said the 20-year-old University of Louisville student. “It is very sporadic.”
The reason for her uneven sleep schedule: McBride is pursuing a double-major in accounting and marketing, and she participates in a sorority.
And in the middle of the night, while most of her peers are asleep, she is driving a forklift in and out of truck trailers at UPS Worldport, the shipping giant’s massive global air hub at Louisville International Airport.
McBride is part of UPS’ Metropolitan College program, which has helped more than 5,000 night-shift workers earn certificates or degrees from U of L and Jefferson Community and Technical College since its founding 20 years ago.
The program covers tuition and books, providing essentially cost-free college for those who can stick with the upside down world of overnight work and daytime school.
For McBride, who takes summer classes to keep on track with her two majors, the value of the benefit is more than $15,000 a year.
As the program enters its third decade, UPS plans few changes besides boosting its enrollment.
“The core of the program has served us well, and continues to serve us well,” said Pat Murphy, workforce development manager for UPS’ operations in Louisville, where the company employees about 20,000 people. “We would not be where we are today if it wasn’t for the program. It provides stability to our over-air operations.”
Metro College, as the program is known, is a partnership in which UPS and state government split the tuition for the company’s overnight workers.
It was born from necessity, as UPS needs thousands of young workers who can show up in the middle of the night to make its global air hub work. College is a way to keep them from quitting, at least until they graduate and move onto other jobs.
McBride, who hopes to become a certified public accountant, starts her shift at UPS a little after midnight and usually stays until 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. – only a few hours before her morning classes at U of L begin. She works five nights a week.
A 2016 graduate of Louisville’s Manual High School, McBride would rather “suck it up for a few years” working the graveyard shift while she completes college than to have eight hours of sleep at night and $60,000 in student debt upon graduating.
“I wanted to build myself up from school, not be digging out of a hole,” she said.
Not everyone is as disciplined. Figures from the company show the majority of people who start Metro College don’t stick with it long enough to earn a certificate or degree.
McBride, who has been on the job two years, has seen several other students come and go.
“Switching from being able to sleep at night … it can be very overwhelming for most people. Third shift is something that springs on you; you don’t have time to adjust to it,” she said.
While she manages to maintain her membership to her sorority, Chi Omega, McBride said Metro College presents challenges for another key aspect of college: “People want the social life, and your social life just has to give a little bit.”
Rhiannon Langel, a U of L senior majoring in marketing, has worked as a load planner at UPS her whole tenure at the university.
“I have never been to a Friday night party,” she said.
UPS ahead of the curve with college funding
In the 1990s, it wasn’t so common for big companies that employ thousands of entry-level workers to offer college benefits, said Anthony Carnevale, a professor at Georgetown University and the director of its Center on Education and the Workforce.
“UPS was an early innovator here,” Carnevale said. “They preceded what is now a fairly substantial and growing movement toward building earn-and-learn programs.”
Since 2012, Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, McDonald’s and Starbucks have all announced new or enhanced college tuition benefits for their employees.
Beyond giving entry-level employees a reason to stay on the job, research shows employers like UPS get another big benefit with tuition programs: They attract upwardly mobile workers with strong work ethic and other soft skills, what Carnevale calls “the cream of the crop of the non-college workforce.”
“You can be sure you will get the strivers, and those are the kind of people you want to have working for you,” Carnevale said.
UPS’ Metro College appears more generous than most other big employer programs.
McDonalds limits its assistance to $3,000 a year, which would cover less a third of U of L tuition for a fulltime, in-state undergraduate. Kroger’s is limited to $3,500 per year and $21,000 per worker in total.
A critical aspect for students struggling to afford college, the UPS program doesn’t require workers to pay the tuition upfront and then get reimbursed by the company. Starbucks, for example, pays only 42 percent of the cost upfront.
UPS also doesn’t restrict the course of study, allowing students to choose any subject, from certificate to masters degree, offered by U of L or JCTC.
Amazon limits its employee tuition benefit to what the company deems “in demand” fields such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technologies, medical lab technologies and nursing.
Walmart’s program is only for degrees in business or supply chain management – skills that might be relevant for workers who want to move into the retailer’s managerial ranks.
But for UPS, Murphy said, “Our payback for the program isn’t in the final degree they get or the career they are choosing. It’s in having them here on the job.”
The one catch with the UPS program – which there is no way around – is that students have to work in the middle of the night.
Even with the generous benefit, that’s a schedule that many can’t keep.
Nearly 17,500 UPS night workers have completed at least a semester of coursework since Metro College began in 1998, according to the company. Only 5,107 of them stuck with the program long enough to earn a credential, whether a certificate, associates, bachelors or graduate degree.
The number of degree-holders helped by the program is likely higher, but UPS has no way to track students who leave the night shift and go on to complete their education without the benefit.
“We’ve got a lot of students that have started in the program and found out that is really hard to work at night and go to school,” said George Poling, a U of L employee who is executive director of Metro College. “They might leave employment at UPS but they’ll continue going to school and they’ll still obtain a degree.”
To be sure, only about half of all undergraduate students at U of L – regardless of whether they work a job – end up with a degree after six years. At JCTC, the graduation rate is only 14 percent, about average among its community college peers, according to spokesman Ben Jackey.
Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees, a nonprofit organization focused on raising college attainment in Louisville, said students not completing degrees is a challenge throughout higher education.
For Metro College students, the consequences of dropping out are not as dire as for others, she said.
“What you do have with Metro College students, if they don’t finish, they are at least not saddled with debt,” said Wheeler, who used to sit on the board overseeing Metro College. “They are getting that education debt-free.”
The program does make students responsible for pro-rated tuition for any classes that fail or get an incomplete grade.
That can interrupt students’ progress because they need to pay off the past-due balance to U of L or JCTC to enroll for the next semester, Poling said.
Another practical challenge is that, as students progress to upperclassmen, the range of courses they need to complete for their degree narrows, which means it’s hard to cluster classes in the afternoon to accommodate night-shift work.
Langel and McBride are taking a course in service marketing that starts at 9:40 a.m. during U of L’s current summer term. It’s the only time the course is offered.
Deal with Kentucky lasts through 2027
UPS’ deal with Kentucky to split the tuition for Metro College students was last renewed by state lawmakers in 2010 and lasts until 2027.
Louisville Metro taxpayers also kick in about $1 million a year to support Metro College’s 16-person staff that counsels students about job prospects and helps them stay on track.
UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters – the union that represents most workers, including the college students, at Worldport – are in the midst of negotiating a new labor contract to replace their five-year deal that expires July 31.
But Metro College is a company initiative that isn’t part of those negotiations, UPS spokesman Jim Mayer said.
In 2017, UPS spent $9.8 million on students’ tuition and received $4.5 million back from Kentucky through tax credits, according to Mayer. (Any kind of grants a student receives, such as federal Pell grants, are applied to the state’s share, reducing the credit, he said.)
With completion bonuses that UPS pays students as they progress academically, the company has spent more than $100 million on the program since 1998, according to Mayer.
The bonuses can add up to $13,850 for a student who sticks the program five years, Mayer said.
Metro College is a rare example in which Kentucky’s spending on higher education is going up – not down – though not by design.
Lawmakers have cut general taxpayer for public community colleges and universities every year since 2008, forcing the colleges to raise tuition.
The cost of attending U of L has more than doubled, adjusted for inflation, since the program’s early days in 2001.
As tuition goes up, the state gets stuck with a small portion of the increase through its Metro College reimbursements.
The fact that students and their parents are shouldering more of the cost of going to college, racking up more debt, makes the UPS program all the more valuable, Wheeler said.
“The burden has been shifted to students and families in a big way, and we need to deploy all opportunities to remove that barrier,” she said.
More information about Metro College: (502) 213-4520, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://metro-college.com