Would You Like Higher Ed With That? Guild Education's Playbook to...

Student Success

Would You Like Higher Ed With That? Guild Education's Playbook to Educating Employees

By Sydney Johnson     May 24, 2017

Would You Like Higher Ed With That? Guild Education's Playbook to Educating Employees

This article is part of the guide: Crossing the Finish Line: Stories on Student Success and What Colleges Are Doing to Get There.

In her last gig at Cornell University, Jess Snyder was a study abroad initiative coordinator, helping college students plan courses and trips in Southeast Asia. But her coaching experience runs deeper than that, she tell EdSurge. “I helped with logics and training programs at Cornell, but I was also a softball coach in college.”

Now, Snyder is applying her coaching and advising skills in a new setting, at Denver-based higher-ed startup Guild Education. As a student success advisor, Snyder is one of 21 full-time coaches who guide working students to and through online degree programs offered on Guild’s platform, which sets up education benefits between higher-ed institutions and employers.

Numbers say the company’s strategy is working: Since January 2017, Guild has helped more than 500 front-of-the-line employees go back to school, and claims to have coached more than 7,000 students since its inception in 2015.

But some say what Guild is doing is simply repackaging what the for-profit education industry has done for a long time—recruiting working students who have access to tuition dollars through their employers.

A “marketplace” for degrees

Co-founder and CEO Rachel Carlson describes Guild as a “marketplace of learning opportunities for frontline workers.” The company—whose partners include Chipotle, Denver Public Schools and Public Service credit union—helps employers offer education-as-a-benefit by teaming up with institutions such as Colorado State and Bellevue University and offer programs ranging from GEDs to master's degrees.

The goal, Carlson says, is to help provide education pathways to working students who might otherwise have trouble making time for higher education or funding their degree. “We have had a lot of students who have years of higher-ed credits but no degree,” says Carlson. “We want to create all the learning opportunities that a frontline worker might need.”

To pay its own bills, Guild tries to convince universities to shift their recruiting dollars away from buying Google and Facebook ads and instead invest in their platform, which brings the students directly to the university through its corporate partnerships. (Education providers pay Guild for its service, however employers—who fund student tuition costs through education benefits—do not.)

Programs on the platform cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 a year, but most students pay about 10 percent of that depending on their employer agreement. Carlson explains, “The university gets paid the tuition price, but in most cases the company picks up the majority of the bill.”

For example, with the company’s newest offering for Chipotle employees, a bachelor’s degree in business from Bellevue University, students are eligible for $5,250 in tuition assistance from the company. They also get opportunities to apply for federal financial aid.

Additional advisors

Why would companies invest in educating entry-level employees—aside from it being a marketing ploy to attract more workers? Better retention. “In the fast-casual [food] sector, our analysis of 90-day retention rates found that 98 percent of frontline employees who pursued education benefits stayed with the company, compared to 73 percent of their peers,” Carlson told the Denver Post.

Achieving those kind of retention numbers is where advisors like Snyder come in. After a program is selected based on a student’s academic credit and career goals, Guild advisors meet one-on-one with their students on a weekly basis either by phone, text or whatever medium is most convenient.

In addition to close and often personal communication, what separates Guild advisors from a traditional academic advisors is that Guild coaches don’t represent an institution; they work with individual students. That means Guild advisors work with students from a variety of universities unlike other admissions departments or organizations “where their job is to convince you to enroll in one place,” says Carlson.

Snyder adds that Guild advisors will often refer students to an office on campus for advice “when we know something is not an area of our expertise.” Those circumstances where a Guild advisor might refer a student back to his or her institution, she continues, could be for financial aid advice or counseling services.

Borrowing from a for-profit playbook?

To an outsider, that scope of support that a Guild advisor provides may seem narrow. “The student support notion is mainly a selling point,” says Trace Urdan, a for-profit higher education industry analyst. “Having more people pay attention to working students is never a bad thing, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of meat on that bone.”

Rather than looking at the company as a substantial supplement to traditional advising services (one way Carlson describes the work Guild does), Urdan places Guild among other online program management providers, which institutions hire to take over campus services to boost student recruitment efforts or bring academic programs online.

Carlson and Snyder disagree with Urdan’s assessment of Guild’s advising merits. “All of my students know that if they need to text me at 2:00 a.m., they can,” says Snyder. “Making them feel like they have unlimited access to us has been important because most of their schedules aren’t 9 to 5.”

But both sides agree that what Guild offers is an alternative—and perhaps more cost-effective—way to spend their recruiting dollars.

“This is really standard among for-profit schools,” Urdan explains. “University of Phoenix for example has a sales team that calls companies and encourages them to strike deals to help refer students to their school and it will give them a discounted rate.”

Guild’s services are also comparable to the recent deal Purdue University made to purchase Kaplan University for $1. Kaplan, a for-profit institution, has its own team of employees who encourage corporations to provide tuition dollars to its campuses. Now, non-profit Purdue will those acquire services as it attempts to grow its online offerings and develop a new nonprofit institution.

Online education is growing among four-year traditional public universities. According to a study by Quality Matters and Eduventures, public four-year universities have seen a 74 percent increase in fully-online programs. However, about 71 percent of public four-year institutions do not work with online program management companies, and say they “don’t have plans to do so.”

Urdan thinks that might begin to change, and that companies like Guild are a good example of why. “A traditional university doesn't do this, it isn't efficient for them. So a third party like Guild makes sense,” he says. Guild, he says, is helping nonprofit institutions do this better by helping colleges set up online programs in a packaged solution that companies can easily present to their employees.

“When it comes to marketing, schools you think of as top institutions know nothing. They send pretty brochures to students who take AP and SAT tests,” says Urdan. “I would bet when Guild calls on these schools, they get a lot of ah-ha’s.”

Going for the big (and small) wins

To keep students accountable and on-track, Snyder says her team works with students to create a roadmap of the academic and professional goals. Along the way, the team focuses on small wins like finishing the first week of classes or getting past six months. “We stay focused on the smaller steps that when compiled will lead to a big win.”

Students aren’t the only victors at Guild. The company has raised $8.5 million in a Series A round in September 2016 from Cowboy Ventures, Harrison Metal, Social Capital, Redpoint and others, according to Crunchbase. The year prior, the company raked in a $2 million seed round, bringing the company's overall raise to $10.5 million.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

Crossing the Finish Line: Stories on Student Success and What Colleges Are Doing to Get There

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up