GEICO, Caterpillar Inc. and Salt River Project have signed new partnerships with the University of Arizona in an important move to expand educational access to their employees via

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The partnerships come as part of an initiative by the UA under its strategic plan, Never Settle, to improve the number of online degree and certificate programs that have high growth potential for graduates in Arizona.

"The UA Online Corporate Initiative is about forming partnerships, opening up degree programs and helping to make higher education conducive to working adults by tailoring programs to such individuals in collaboration with our partners," said Kara Aquilano Forney, UA Online's director of corporate initiatives and business development.

UA Online officially launched in 2015, offering a fully online UA experience to both undergraduate and graduate students. Today, it offers about 80 undergraduate and graduate degree programs as well as graduate certificate programs, in a broadly diverse range of disciplines and subject areas.

Partnering with national and international companies that are locally focused and make important statewide contributions fits with the contemporary land-grant mission of the UA — a globally minded, locally focused institution.

"Part of our role is to build on the values that exist in many of the corporations where advanced learning is encouraged," said Melissa Vito, the UA's senior vice president for Student Affairs & Enrollment Management, and senior vice provost for Academic Initiatives & Student Success.

Expanding access to higher-education degrees is an important focus for the UA and the state, as the Arizona Board of Regents maintains goals for improving degree attainment by 2020.

"As one of the world’s most outstanding public universities, our job is to help Arizona move forward economically. Education is central to that," said Vincent J. Del Casino Jr., the UA's vice provost for digital learning and student engagement.

"This is about making an immediate connection with companies that have a home base in Arizona," Del Casino said. "The downstream benefit will come to the employees, their organizations and the state of Arizona."

Partnerships Important to All

Caterpillar, which announced earlier this year that it was moving its surface mining and technology offices to Tucson, is partnering with the UA College of Engineering, which is offering a yearlong, master's-level mining certificate program to the company's executives, called Mining 360.

The Tucson operations office for auto insurance company GEICO has partnered with UA Online and the Eller College of Management to enroll employees who are interested in moving into supervisory and management positions. Such positions require a bachelor's degree. Employees in the company's local call center began coursework this fall toward UA baccalaureate degrees in business through the partnership.

And Phoenix-based Salt River Project, one of the largest utility companies in the state, is supporting employees interested in any UA Online degree or certificate program.

UA Online plans to create several more partnerships over the next six months.

For Caterpillar, the UA's academic and research strengths, and also the international reputation of its Department of Mining and Geological Engineering, proved especially attractive to the company, which regularly works with clients in the mining field.  

"The University and its faculty are recognized leaders in the field of mining and geology education, and we're honored to partner with them in developing even deeper mining expertise among our employees through the Mining 360 program," said Thomas Bluth, Caterpillar's vice president of surface mining and technology.

"This yearlong program will bring together a global group of high-performing, high-potential Caterpillar and Cat dealer employees and faculty to learn from and with each other in a common pursuit of better serving our customers," Bluth said. "I'm excited in the way in which the University has created a curriculum that blends classroom and distance learning with the opportunity to physically visit, study and learn in active mine sites across the United States and Canada."

Martha Furnas, regional vice president for GEICO, said the company wanted to work with an institution "that meets the caliber of education that we want our associates to receive." UA was the most ideal fit, she said. 

"We see the type of leadership that comes out of the UA and we wanted to extend that learning opportunity to our associates and encourage their success," Furnas said. "By partnering with UA Online, we are giving our associates the competitive advantage to advance their career and their personal growth. Wildcat pride runs deep in the community, and with a vast number of our workforce being UA alumni, we wanted to continue that tradition."

GEICO already is strongly connected to the UA and Eller College of Management through involvement in annual career fairs, student competitions and other forms of engagement.

"GEICO has been a great partner to our undergraduate Professional Development Center and a consistent recruiter of our student talent," said Paulo Goes, dean of the Eller College. "We are pleased that through this program, we are able to serve busy professionals and help them complete bachelor’s degrees while simultaneously developing as company leaders."

One employee, Nate Alvarez, had every intention of becoming a college graduate. He began taking classes at a local community college, but coursework proved challenging with a family of four and a full time job. 

The launch of a corporate partnership between GEICO and UA Online gave Alvarez the flexibility he needed, he said.

"Logging in when my girls are asleep or pulling out my laptop during my lunch break is so convenient," said Alvarez, who is working towards his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. "Graduating from the University of Arizona is going to mean the world to me. And not just to me, but to my girls. It’s a milestone that I have been looking forward to my entire life."

Strengthening Return on Investment

While certain companies long have offered educational assistance programs to their employees, the three new UA Online partnerships represent a reinvigorated investment by companies in employee development since the recent global economic struggles, Aquilano Forney said.

Aquilano Forney points to a Lumina Foundation report released in April indicating that the gap between the skills employers need and what workers possess is a "threat" to the nation's ability to be globally competitive.

This concern is partially driving the nearly $177 billion annual investment companies spend on employee training and talent development. The Lumina Foundation found that, when employers invest in their employees, the return on investment is pervasive. Benefits include more promotions, better employment opportunities and higher earning power for workers. Also, companies can gain savings in talent management costs and improved employee retention.

Of note, the UA's new partners offer various combinations of fee waivers for applications, funding to pay for admissions fees, tuition reimbursements, and other supports and benefits. 

In addition to UA faculty supporting company employees, the students — like other UA Online students — have access to a dedicated support specialist who provides them with the resources and information necessary to acclimate to their new identities as students.

"Companies are catching on about how to streamline their costs, but not at the expense of their employees. Investing in the development of their existing talent pool is a much more attractive and less costly option than repeatedly hiring and training brand-new employees," Aquilano Forney said, adding that she is finding more employers who offer no cap on educational expenses toward degree completion.

"We want this to be a world class example of how such partnerships can work," she said.

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