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I’ll Have a Degree With a Side of Fries

Published on February 12, 2020, at 9:49 p.m.
by Dylan Lanas.

In his 2003 hit song, 21 Questions, 50 Cent says, “If I ain’t rap ’cause I flipped burgers at Burger King / Would you be ashamed to tell your friends you feelin’ me?”

Courtesy of Angelo Pantazis on Unsplash

The line touches on the stereotype that fast-food workers are poor and unmotivated (this sentiment even has its own Wikipedia entry). Clearly, 50 Cent is worried his love interest would be dissuaded by his hypothetical lowly position.

However, the fast-food work environment has changed dramatically since Fiddy asked this question. Fry-cooks, baristas and all food service employees in between have more opportunities than ever due to their employers listening to their needs. This shift carries a lesson that applies to public relations professionals.

PRSA defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Employees make up one of a company’s internal publics and a very important one at that.

Unsurprisingly, keeping employees satisfied beyond pay helps not only them but also the company as a whole. A study by the Lumina Foundation found that health care company Cigna’s tuition assistance program led to an ROI of 129% by decreasing employee turnover.

Enter the growing trend of fast-food giants helping their workers pay for college.

Courtesy of Asael Peña on Unsplash

Starbucks, a brand that is arguably known as much for its progressive policies as it is for its coffee, began tuition reimbursement in 2014 with its College Achievement Plan. Through this program, Starbucks pays the complete tuition of an Arizona State University online degree (of which there are more than 80 options).

McDonald’s joined in on the trend a year after Starbucks with its Archways to Opportunity program, which saw its budget increase over 300% in 2018. The reason? Like the coffee giant, the golden arches wants to keep more of its workers, especially those with college aspirations.

Chipotle is one of the most recent quick-service restaurants to offer such benefits with its Cultivate Education initiative. Again, retention rates of workers increased.

“The unfortunate reality is that too many Americans can no longer afford a college degree,” said Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, following the launch of his company’s tuition assistance program. “By giving our partners access to four years of full tuition coverage, we will provide them a critical tool for lifelong opportunity.”

With all of the aforementioned programs, Schultz’s acknowledgment of one of his internal publics seems to have begun a growing dialogue of employee relations among fast-food providers.

Nonetheless, there are cynics. Some are — to continue the food metaphors — saltier than others.

Despite the decrease in turnover this recent movement has shown for multiple businesses, there are still worries about how effective this education truly is as many of these degrees are earned online.

Courtesy of JodyHongFilms on Unsplash

Research shows that such certifications struggle to win the acceptance of traditional educators. According to these same studies, only 29% of higher education faculty believe in the “value and legitimacy of online education.”

However, the fact remains that a bachelor’s degree has monumental income benefits versus a high school diploma. According to a 2019 U.S. House committee report, people with a bachelor’s degree, on average, earn up to $1 million more over a career than those without such. The report also notes that minority and low-income individuals still face barriers to achieving this education.

The programs previously mentioned (which don’t include many more restaurants offering such assistance) give opportunities directly to these disadvantaged students. In the Chipotle case study, the company reported that 63% of program participants are first-generation college students.

The main takeaway for PR practitioners: Listening to what your publics need and being proactive in solving these needs lead to consistent mutual benefits.

Doing so can turn an “I’m Loving It” attitude to a “We’re Loving It” mindset, and this transformation has shown quantifiable success.

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