Fiat Chrysler will put workers' kids through college

fiat chrysler free college
Fiat Chrysler workers and their family members can earn a degree from Strayer University for free.

How's this for a job perk? Fiat Chrysler is giving dealership workers and their family members a free ride to college.

The new benefit is supposed to woo the best workers. Auto sales are booming but Fiat Chrysler is having a hard time finding the right people for open jobs -- especially auto technicians -- as it grows.

"Our dealerships asked us for help. We think this program will help them attract the top talent around the nation and retain the best people," said John Fox, the Director of Dealer Training at Fiat Chrysler (FCAM).

There are more than 100,000 workers at its 2,600 dealerships across the country that could be eligible for the benefit, which extends to spouses and children.

They won't have to pay anything for tuition or books, or take on any debt. But the deal is only good at Strayer University. The for-profit college has 78 campuses across the country and also offers an online program.

"We chose Strayer because we were looking for an expert in adult education, that offers flexibility for people who are already working full time," Fox said.

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Fiat Chrysler workers and their families can enroll in any associate's, bachelor's or master's degree program online or at any of the campuses. Some of the business classes they enroll in will be tailored to fit their jobs. A marketing class, for example, will choose case studies related to the industry, said Strayer CEO Karl McDonnell.

The cost of getting a bachelor's degree at Strayer (STRA), including books, is about $50,000.

Fiat Chrysler rolled out the program at some dealerships in the southeast earlier this year. About 400 workers signed up, and most enrolled in bachelor's programs in business with focuses on marketing, accounting, finance and entrepreneurship.

Graduation rates at Strayer vary widely by degree, McDonnell said. Of those with some prior college experience, about half finish on time, but only 20% of those who have never gone to college do. Among grad students, nearly 70% earn their degree on time. Almost all of its students enroll part-time.

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The move comes soon after Starbucks expanded its own free tuition program. It has partnered with Arizona State University to offer a free ride to its online program. But it's not as expansive as Fiat Chrysler's "Degrees@Work" program. Employees at Starbucks (SBUX) are only eligible if they have not yet received a bachelor's degree. And family members are included only for workers who are military veterans.

Unlike Starbucks, the Fiat Chrysler program is not a reimbursement. There will be no upfront costs for its employees, McDonnel said.

Like other for-profit colleges, Strayer has been losing money and students. Enrollment dipped 28% to 40,254 between 2010 and 2014, according to a regulatory filing. It has 300 other corporate sponsorships, but the one with Fiat Chrysler will be the most widespread.

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