Baldwin Wallace University and blender manufacturer Vitamix are teaming up on a new “learn and earn” program. The collaboration is a step aimed at furthering the link between institution and industry in Northeast Ohio.
Last year, only 34% of the region’s workforce had a two- or four-year degree or credential. That’s far from the goal of 65% the state will reportedly need to hit by 2025.
Program participants will spend 30 hours a week working as assemblers, getting paid a starting salary listed at $14.52 an hour. Ten additional hours a week will be spent completing BW coursework on-site at Vitamix, working to earn a bachelor of applied business degree. That chunk of time is composed of two-hour unpaid breaks per day.
Vitamix is aiming to have a group of 15 people in its first class set to launch next month. That number wasn’t reached by accident. It represents the amount of employees typically working on a production line.
Heather Hennekes, Vitamix’s senior director of human resources, said there might be opportunities to move to a higher level of assembler over time, but the job will remain within the same department.
“This particular program is really meant to align with our production needs,” Hennekes said.
She said they’re actively recruiting, including by reaching out to high schools. The company’s president and CEO, Jodi Berg, had noted some young people across Northeast Ohio were having to make the choice between attending college or heading straight to the workforce.
Though the idea for the program sparked from a conversation between Berg and Baldwin Wallace University’s president before the pandemic, the observation Berg noted may have amplified during the past year. Enrollment of freshmen dropped 13% at campuses across the country last fall.
A LinkedIn recruiting post stated the education is “intended to be provided at minimal costs, pending participant eligibility.” The price individuals will actually end up paying hinges on how much financial aid is awarded through the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form participants are expected to complete.
An example price breakdown listed paying about $200 plus books for out-of-pocket costs per semester, though that number could vary depending on the actual aid award.
And to keep that financial aid, people will need to enroll in a minimum of six credits per semester. That equates to about two courses per semester or one course during back-to-back “mini-mesters” within a semester.
Officials said some classes will happen at the same time in a cohort model, but there will also be flexibility given each person’s path. There’s the ability to specialize in one of four focus areas, including organizational leadership, human resources, health care and management. An applied project must be completed, too. The program was approved by the Ohio Department of Higher Education in March.
Course offerings include the survey of economics, advanced applications for information analysis, international business and marketing. Baldwin Wallace faculty will teach all of the courses. Some will be delivered in-person, others by distance learning.
Participants will have access to the services and programs all of the university’s enrolled students receive, said provost Stephen Stahl, though the experience won’t be the same as those undergrads who live on the Berea campus. The university’s full-time enrollment clocked in at about 3,100 last fall.
“It will be BW classes to BW expectations,” Stahl said. “They’ll work as hard as regular BW students, just perhaps a little bit differently.”
Stahl said the curriculum was developed in tandem with Vitamix and the company’s needs. That’s similar to the sentiment typically heard at community colleges. Those institutions have been leaders in this space, known for cultivating close relationships with businesses and responding to job needs.
The building trades have been the gold standard in the “learn and earn” arena, said Jane Oates, president of the nonprofit WorkingNation and a former U.S. Department of Labor official. Those opportunities offer flexibility, portability, and are industry recognized, she said.
“The three things that I think are really important whenever you’re doing any of these programs,” she said.
Some employers, including giants like UPS and Starbucks, offer tuition assistance for employees. When it comes to four-year campuses, places like Northeastern University and the University of Cincinnati are known for co-op programs.
While BW provost Stahl said they looked at other programs and studies when creating the program, he thinks this offering occupies a niche.
“There isn’t a good analog anywhere else in the nation that I know of that fits this,” Stahl said.
Having an applied component to a liberal arts education has been part of BW’s identity since its founding, he said, adding that the university historically was a large provider of adult education until the Great Recession.
“One of the problems facing higher ed today, particularly private higher ed, is how do you keep a high quality education affordable,” he said “High quality education is high touch education. That’s expensive. How do we maintain permission of accessibility when you can’t keep raising tuition.”
This program, he said, is a model.
Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.