Walmart woos students with free test prep, debt-free college

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.

RELATED: 5 biggest mistakes shoppers make according to Walmart employees

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5 biggest mistakes shoppers make, according to Walmart employees
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5 biggest mistakes shoppers make, according to Walmart employees

Making assumptions about the services offered at your local store

Walmart does offer product care plans and a trade-in program that allows shoppers to exchange devices for gift cards.

But one Walmart employee of nine years told Business Insider that it was a mistake for customers to just assume "we have an electronics repair facility here."

If you're in doubt, it's best to skip the wild goose chase and try calling ahead.

Failing to plan out your shopping trips

Shopping for a big holiday weekend blowout?

Well, just assume that everyone else is following suit.

An associate of 12 years told Business Insider that it was a mistake to wait "until the last minute to shop," especially when it comes to busier times of the week or year.

The employee added that some shoppers fail to understand that "they aren't the only people that will show up. So, yes, there will be lines at the registers. Plan better — plan early."

A Reddit poster who said they worked in the electronics department at Walmart noted that Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays typically garner the biggest crowds.

Skipping an important return hack

A Walmart store manager told the savings-oriented blog The Krazy Coupon Lady that there's a way to return products ordered online with less hassle.

If you end up ordering an item on Walmart.com that you don't actually want, you can return it through the chain's mobile express returns system.

"You just get a QR code from your Walmart app, bring your item to the store, skip the line, and scan your QR code on the credit card machine," according to The Krazy Coupon Lady.

Being mean to Walmart associates

A Walmart employee of 15 years said that "being mean" to the employees at Walmart is probably the biggest mistake a shopper can make.

"If you are nice to them, they will bend over backwards to help you," the employee told Business Insider.

That means acting courteously and not threatening to "contact management or the home office" when something goes wrong that's outside of the employees' control, according to an associate of 11 years.

"Unfortunately, there is a bad stigma surrounding Walmart employees," former Walmart employee Crystal Linn wrote on Quora.

They added that customers sometimes buy into that bias and treat the associates as "ignorant high school drop-outs."

"I even had a woman ask me once, 'Do you even know what an electric can opener is?' after I showed her where the handheld ones were located," Linn wrote. "Not everyone is like this, of course, but it seems that the large majority have this idea in their mind that anyone that works at Walmart is trashy. The way that people treat you because of that really wears you down."

Forgetting to check for markdowns

Want to save some money on your next Walmart run? Watch out for the prices.

Specifically, keep an eye out for price tags ending in 0 or 1.

According to an interview with a Walmart store manager on The Krazy Coupon Lady, a pricetag ending with a 0 or a 1 denotes a "final markdown price." Meanwhile, the store manager told the blog that prices ending in 5 "are the first markdown price."

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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.

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.

ROGERS, AR - MAY 31: A Walmart associate restocks fresh vegetables  at a Walmart Supercenter during the annual shareholders seeting event on May 31, 2018 in Rogers, Arkansas. The shareholders week brings thousands of shareholders and associates from around the world to meet at the company's  global headquarters. (Photo by Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images)

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.

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.

A livestream of the event will be available on Yahoo Finance on June 7.

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

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