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2U Inc. and Guild Education announced a new partnership to expand education offerings through employers.

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Employees at companies such as Walmart, Chipotle and Lowe’s may soon have access to discounted online degrees through a new partnership between 2U Inc. and Guild Education, two companies that have previously focused on different niches within the postsecondary education market.

Guild Education connects higher education institutions and employers, matching workers with select online degrees to support their career advancement, while 2U supports dozens of higher education institutions' online degree programs, historically providing up-front investment, marketing and support for graduate degrees at selective nonprofit institutions.

A new partnership announced Tuesday will make 2U online degrees, boot camps and nondegree certificate programs available to employees at companies that are Guild customers.

More than three million American workers currently have access to Guild Education’s platform, which aims to make it simple to use tuition benefits toward an online degree or certificate. By working with Guild Education, companies can select at which institutions they want their employees to study and what they would like them to study. For universities, Guild Education provides access to a pool of working adults who may not otherwise consider pursuing a degree.

Existing universities partnering with Guild Education include the University of Arizona, Purdue University and the University of Florida. Nonprofit colleges and universities in 2U's portfolio include institutions such as Michigan State University, Rice University and the University of California, Berkeley.

“As companies strive to keep pace with rapid transformations in the economy, investing in the ongoing education and skills development of their workforce has become a critical part of ensuring future competitiveness,” said Chip Paucek, co-founder and CEO of 2U, in a statement. “Our new partnership will enable Guild’s growing network of employer partners to access world-class online degree and non-degree programs powered by 2U and unlock transformative educational opportunities for millions of workers across the nation.”

Despite the financial pressure brought about by COVID-19, large companies such as the Walt Disney Company, which partners with Guild Education, have continued to invest in tuition assistance programs in the past year in an effort to retain and upskill staff.

"Normally during a downturn, some of the first things to go are training programs, like tuition reimbursement programs," Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at the left-of-center think tank New America, said in November.

The average college student who borrows for higher education takes on more than $29,000 in debt, but many could be working, earning and studying toward a college degree with the support of their employer, said Rachel Carlson, CEO of Guild Education, in a statement.

"Guild is proud to help its students avoid that debt, which is even more important considering our student demographics -- 54 percent of whom are people of color and 56 percent of whom are women," Carlson said. "As 2U helps top-notch colleges and universities come online, Guild is grateful to play an important role creating access to those schools for American workers across the U.S. This partnership will support our mission to drive down the cost of higher education, and importantly, help workers advance their education and career."

The selection of degrees and certificates that will become available on the Guild platform will be driven largely by employer demand, said Paul Freedman, learning marketplace president for Guild Education. He hinted employer partners showed particular interest in pharmaceutical training.

Demand is also strong to attract and retain Black employees through HBCUs such as Morehouse College, Freedman said. Morehouse announced an online program management partnership with 2U earlier this month.

The first offerings to be considered through the new partnership will likely be short courses and undergraduate degrees, then boot camps, then graduate degrees, Freedman said.

“We’re going to walk, then we’re going to run and we’re going to fly,” he said.

Asked how soon 2U programs and courses might be available through the Guild platform, Paucek said, “As soon as possible.” The process is already underway.

Many of 2U’s university partners haven’t made the market of adult learners a priority in the past, but they are eager to serve that audience now, Paucek said. He stressed that it is institutions, not 2U, that control admissions procedures. But college leaders express some openness to exploring more flexible pathways to college degrees.

Traditionally, 2U has focused on graduate education. Paucek said the company will likely expand its reach in undergraduate education and the nondegree certificate market. He referenced two acquisitions the company completed in the past -- of GetSmarter, an online nondegree short course platform, and Trilogy Education Services, a boot camp operator that partners with universities to offer noncredit technology training.

“When we acquired GetSmarter and Trilogy, there were those that questioned it,” said Paucek. “I think it’s obvious now that we were ahead of the curve. Now we have the total package.”

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