Though she works on the University of Philadelphia campus, higher education has always eluded Elise Hartley, 44, a housekeeper at the Hilton-owned Inn at Penn.
“[Getting my high school diploma] was something I always wanted to do, but the timing was always off,” said Hartley, who immigrated to the United States from Antigua Barbuda in 2016 and now lives in West Philadelphia. “It was a little expensive, there was too much wear and tear on my body [going to sit in a classroom after work] and it was the same stuff all over again. It was a waste of time, so I gave it a break.”
Then she learned about Hilton Hotels’ high school diploma program. Since August, the hotel chain has partnered with Boston-based education and technology company Cengage to provide employees who dropped out of high school with the chance to earn their diploma—paid for 100 percent.
“It’s my first time at online study. I’m learning stuff I never learned before. I go online every day,” said Hartley, who plans to continue her studies after graduation, perhaps in a computer-related field. “I like doing stuff with computers.”
Gareth Fox, vice president of human resources for Hilton’s American operations, said the McLean, Va-based company’s mission “is to be the most hospitable company in the world, and that includes the hospitality we deliver to our [employees].”
Fox said most of the company’s eligible candidates for the high school diploma program are about 15 years out from their most recent academic experiences—a demographic that’s less likely to earn a GED.
“On average, successful GED candidates have spent less than nine years outside of an academic setting,” Fox said. “We wanted to present another option that would better suit [our employees’] needs.”
So Hilton turned to Cengage (formerly called Thomson Learning), which works with libraries, professionals and educational institutions as well as corporations. Cengage runs an 18-credit, online high school program, from which students typically graduate in 12 to 18 months. There’s a two-week evaluation period when they earn their first half credit and when it is determined whether a student has the drive, ambition, computer skills and time to complete the program.
Kristina Massari, director of public relations for Cengage, said the bar for admission is set at eighth grade skills, although they have worked with students who don’t quite meet that level.
Approximately 5,000 Hilton employees are eligible for the program, for which the company is picking up the tab, at $1,000 per student. To be eligible, employees must have worked for Hilton for six months and meet the program’s entry requirements for math and reading competency.
“We believe that creating meaningful professional opportunities is a key priority,” Fox said. “We hope that our [employees] gaining additional education will make them feel valued and more confident in their current roles, as well as open up other career opportunities within Hilton.
He said the high school GED program is part of a broader strategy to provide more educational and career development opportunities throughout the company. Since 2015, Hilton has been providing professional development and opportunities to enhance job skills through its internal program, Hilton University. Fox said the company also provides tuition reimbursement for college courses.
Taryn McKenzie, executive director for corporate and workforce partnerships for Cengage, said programs like the one set up with Hilton are particularly useful for people who may have felt traumatized by the educational system.
“It’s really hard to get this population to re-engage because of their negative perceptions,” she said. “Most dropped out of school because of three things: fear of failure, lack of support and they didn’t feel it was relevant.
“When students are in really difficult situations … school doesn’t feel relevant to what they’re going through at home.”
As a result, Cengage flipped the curriculum—instead of starting with the basics, students pick a major to help them build confidence and see relevancy, McKenzie said. Additionally, no failing grades are issued. Students need to achieve a 70 percent score to pass on to the next unit. Those who don’t make that score receive one-on-one coaching from a clinical psychologist, most of whom had themselves dropped out of high school.
“That’s our secret sauce,” McKenzie said.
In addition to a diploma, students earn certificates in eight areas: general career preparation, office management, food and hospitality, childcare and education, retail customer service, certified protection officer, commercial driving or homeland security.
More than 30 million Americans lack a high school diploma, costing each an estimated $500,000 in lost income over the course of their lifetimes, according to World Education, a nonprofit that provides educational, social and economic development programs. McKenzie said that once students get their diploma, they make up that difference.
“For every person we can graduate, we make a $1 million difference. That’s pretty remarkable,” she said. “Our goal is to get people to graduate.”
Other companies that have worked with Cengage, like McDonald’s and Walmart, report that they have seen improvements in retention rates, along with increased employee approval.
“We’re doing research to figure out ROI [return on investment]. When people go through the program, 72 percent have a favorable opinion of their employer. They get a new job, a raise or a promotion because of the diploma. It’s a great thing for corporations to say, ‘We’re going to invest in our people. We’re going to promote from within,’” McKenzie said.
Some 11,000 students have enrolled in Cengage programs.
Susan Fenwick, 48, of Washington state was one of them.
“It was life-changing for me,” said Fenwick, who dropped out of high school her junior year to help take care of her siblings. Fenwick is a career employee of McDonald’s and since graduating in January, has enrolled at Colorado Tech in a BA program for business administration with a concentration in business development.
“I’m so incredibly grateful for the opportunity,” said Fenwick, who is an operations and customer care manager for one of McDonald’s franchisees. “I’ve come across so many people who could have benefited from this program. For me it’s more of an, ‘I did it.’ For someone in their late teens or early 20s, it could really be life-changing.”
Hartley agreed. She said she’s also encouraging her 24-year-old son to go back to school.
“If you don’t have a high school diploma, they’re not going to hire you. Education is the key,” she said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Elise Hartley and misstated where she grew up. She immigrated to the United States from Antigua Barbuda.
The story has also been updated to more accurately describe the origins of Cengage and the requirements for admission to its high school diploma program. Originally called Thomson Learning, the company became Cengage in 2007 after Thomson Corporation sold the business. Students are expected to have sixth grade level skills, but Cengage has worked with people who don't quite meet that requirement.