In early 2014, Discover Financial Services decided to do more for our call center employees. At that time, I was the organization’s chief learning officer, and over the previous six years we had built a call center training program that had become the envy of the Financial Services Industry. We had consolidated 19 separate call-center training groups in 2008 and had spent the intervening years investing in our training function through upskilling our employees, deploying technology, and selectively hiring exceptional talent from outside the company. By 2014, we had won the first of three successive highly sought-after “Best Call Center Training” awards from the International Quality and Productivity Center. We had become a destination for learning and development professionals and new call-center employees who valued high-quality training – and, ironically enough, for recruiters who wanted to poach the best call-center employees in the industry.
But we knew we could do more.
Call center jobs in the United States provide enormous opportunity to high-energy, hard-working, diligent workers, the vast majority of whom have little education beyond a high school diploma. We recognized that our employees had chosen Discover largely because we were willing to invest in their success. But to truly repay their trust, we had to think more broadly about how education could future-proof their abilities and provide a long-term boost to their career opportunities.
Discover had provided an employee tuition reimbursement benefit for as long as anyone could remember, but the program hadn’t been designed to drive strategic employee upskilling. Moreover, various aspects of the program design – such as the need for employees to pay their tuition out of pocket and wait for reimbursement at the end of the term – depressed participation and significantly reduced graduation rates.
After conducting a set of focus groups with employees and exploratory discussions with peer leaders at other companies, we concluded that we had an opportunity to build a cutting-edge education assistance program that would achieve four major objectives:
- Upskill our existing call center employees, enhancing their long-term career opportunities
- Build internal capabilities and bolster a key pipeline of talent for leaders and specialized roles across the company
- Foster our brand as a “great place to work,” thereby increasing Discover’s ability to hire and retain the best available talent
- Strengthen Discover’s reputation for social responsibility and corporate citizenship
We set about thoroughly redesigning our program, and in June of 2018 – after nearly three years of hard work – we rolled out The Discover College Commitment, a choice of seven high-quality online degrees from regionally accredited university partners offered completely free to all qualified Discover employees. Launched in partnership with Guild Education, the program was met with near instant acclaim. In the first month, the program was profiled by Forbes, Fortune, CNN Money, and a variety of other national publications. By the end of the year, the Wall Street Journal had written favorably about our program.
It’s been more than a year since the launch of the Discover College Commitment, and it’s been reported that more than 500 Discover employees have started earning fully funded degrees in business, computer engineering, cybersecurity, and organizational management.
Looking back on the research, design, and launch of the Discover College Commitment, there are three main things my team learned that other leadership and development leaders can draw from our efforts:
- Most C-level executives are looking for an excuse to do the right thing for their employees – they’re predisposed to saying “yes” to ambitious development efforts, even when outcomes are far from a sure thing. We spent months developing the full business case in which we modeled participation rates and undertook a sensitivity analysis for a projected return on investment. Ultimately, Discover’s CEO and COO agreed to fund the program because they were committed to accelerating the careers of Discover’s front-line employees.
- Employees are well served by experts in the learning and development organization vetting university partners and choosing degrees that are aligned to the strategic needs of the company. When we assessed the impact of our tuition reimbursement program prior to launching The Discover College Commitment, we discovered that our employees all too frequently chose to pursue their degrees from institutions with low student outcomes in areas of little long-term value to the company. By selecting a small set of strategically relevant degrees from universities with a long track record of student success, we managed to increase participation, engagement, and business impact.
- While it’s easy to see how launching a company-wide program to drive degree attainment will be extremely well received by the 3-6% of the company that chooses to enroll, what’s less obvious is how such programs will contribute to overall company pride and engagement. We were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm that greeted the program by Discover’s nonparticipants. Our takeaway was that although only a small percentage of the company will directly benefit from the program, everyone enjoys and appreciates working for a company that is committed to a broad view of employee success.
Launching the Discover College Commitment was one of the highlights of my career. I joined the education profession because I wanted to improve the lives of those around me, and few endeavors in my career have done so in such a substantive manner. My sincerest hope is other learning and development leaders launch similar programs, drawing some insights from our experience at Discover.
Tweet One year since the launch of @Discover’s free college program, hundreds of employees have started earning degrees in business, engineering, cybersecurity, & management. Former CLO Jon Kaplan tells the story of how it all began.
Tweet Five years ago, @Discover’s education benefit wasn’t designed for strategic #upskilling, and various factors depressed participation. So CLO Jon Kaplan set about to build a new cutting-edge program, The Discover College Commitment.
Tweet “I joined the education profession because I wanted to improve the lives of those around me,” says Jon Kaplan, former CLO of @Discover. “Launching The Discover College Commitment was one of the highlights of my career.”
About the Author
Jon Kaplan is a senior executive and thought leader in learning and development. He is the founder and principal of Corvantus Consulting, a leadership and development consulting firm with a focus on upskilling frontline employees and reskilling mid-level professionals. Until mid-2019, he was chief learning officer at Discover Financial Services, where he had enterprise-wide responsibility for leadership, executive, and professional development; compliance training; industry learning; functional job-role training; and university partnerships and education assistance. At Discover, Jon led a company-wide upskilling initiative that received industry-wide acclaim.
The views expressed in this article are the sole opinions of the author.
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