Anthem offers free college degrees for employees

In addition to health insurance and retirement plans, Anthem Inc.’s employee benefits now include this: a free college degree.

The Indianapolis-based health insurer announced Tuesday that it will pay upfront (not reimburse later) the full cost of a business or health care degree at College for America, an offshoot of Southern New Hampshire University that provides online programs for adults.

About 34,000 of Anthem’s 55,000 employees do not have a bachelor’s degree. The program would give all employees working more than 20 hours per week a chance to get one as a way to grow in their career with Anthem.

“We wanted to make sure it helped our associates grow within the organization. The goal of this is for them to be developed and fill broader roles,” said Jose Tomas, Anthem’s chief human resources officer.

“It’s a benefit to us,” Tomas added, “It’s a whole lot better to promote from within than to go outside.”

Anthem’s move follows a decision in April by Starbucks to pay for its employees to earn bachelor’s degrees through Arizona State University. Other employers, including McDonald’s, Gap and ConAgra Foods, also have created partnerships with College for America.

Anthem already has a tuition reimbursement program—which pays up to $5,000 per year of college bills for full- and part-time employees who have been with the company at least six months.

But now those same employees could earn one of the degrees at College for America without paying anything out of pocket. That’s because all degrees at College for America cost $2,500 per year.

At the same time, College for America offers competency-based programs. That concept allows students chances to move through their programs faster if they can demonstrate knowledge they already have from previous schooling or work experience. By contrast, traditional programs award credit based on the number of hours students spend in class.

Tomas said Anthem expects more of its employees to take advantage of the new benefit than have used the tuition reimbursement program. But because the cost is lower, Anthem does not expect to spend any more money than it currently budgets for tuition reimbursement.

“It’s far more efficient for our associates to gain their degrees,” Tomas said. “That’s a huge benefit to our employees.”

Anthem employees can earn one of six degrees from College for America: an associate’s degree in general studies with either a concentration in business or in non-clinical health care; a bachelor’s degree in communications with a concentration in either business or health care; or a bachelor’s degree in health care management with a concentration in either communications or global perspectives.

Starrann Freitas, 52, one of nine Anthem employees who has participated in a pilot of the program with College for America since 2013, earned an associate's degree with a concentration in business in just eight months.

Two months after receiving the degree, she was promoted from an administrative assistant at Anthem's HealthCore subsidiary to a communications specialist there. She got a raise as well.

"My supervisor sat me down and said it was time for me to move on and apply some of the skills that I had learned," Freitas said, citing business budgeting, problem solving and communications.

Freitas said she started working right after high school and then could not afford to earn a college degree while she was raising two sons and paying for them to go to college.

"I’m just grateful that this opportunity has come along," she said. "And I think a lot of others will take advantage of it, too."

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