Chipotle Expands College Tuition Benefits for Employees

Photo by Media Wisdom Photography

Chipotle Mexican Grill has partnered with an online education startup to help the restaurant chain expand a tuition reimbursement program that could result in some employees paying as little as $250 per year to take college courses.

The program, which Chipotle (CMG) unveiled on Monday, is a partnership with Colorado-based Guild Education and will allow employees at the burrito chain to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees, taking college courses, earn a GED, or study English as a second language. The partnership builds on an existing tuition reimbursement program that already exists at Chipotle. That employee benefit received a big notable upgrade about a year ago, when Chipotle expanded the benefit to part-time employees after previously only offering the perk to salaried workers.

Here’s how Chipotle came up with the $250 figure: Employees would have access to up to $5,250 in tuition reimbursement per yearprovided by the company. An additional $5,815 could come from federal grants (though only for qualified candidates). Through those programs and the discounted tuition that Guild is offering, that’s how college costs can in some cases reach such a low figure.

Broadly, restaurant chains and retailers have in recent years aimed to entice workers with better paying jobs and perks to lure and retain talent. Much of the media’s attention has focused on wage increases, but other perks like tuition reimbursement can be an important competitive advantage for companies like Chipotle. Rival restaurant chains have moved to augment their own educational programs in recent years. Starbucks (SBUX), for example, also works with an online education company in a perk it says can cover all college expenses. McDonald’s (MCD) also has a college program, albeit it is less generous.

For Chipotle, an investment in the education of the company’s more than 60,000 employees can make sense strategically: about 90% of Chipotle restaurant managers came from lower-paid crew positions.

Gretchen Selfridge, restaurant support officer at Chipotle, told Fortune that since the company expanded the tuition perk to part-time employees in 2015, Chipotle has contributed about $5 million to 1,500 employees’ education. A majority of those that took advantage of the perk were those working in crew and cashier positions.

Selfridge said that while the number of employees that are taking advantage of the perk is low, Chipotle is hopeful that figure will increase due to the new partnership announced on Monday.

“Most of our employees wouldn’t have an idea of how to fill out a grant,” says Selfridge, who points out that many employees hired by the restaurant chain would be first-generation college students. “This partnership can help them find ways to cover even more costs.”

Selfridge explained that the company’s recent efforts to tout tuition reimbursement has also helped Chipotle confront the negative perception that comes with working at a restaurant chain. In her time talking with Chipotle’s young restaurant staff, Selfridge says she’s heard many times that employees thought college was out of reach (because it was too expensive) and also that their parents deemed a job at Chipotle as a dead-end gig.

“When these kids and their parents realize there is tuition reimbursement, it shows we aren’t trying to retain them in the fast food industry forever,” Selfridge says.

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