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Building Innovative Corporate Learning Beyond the Workplace

By Robin Stricklin / June 2003

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Corporate universities take many forms. Delta Air Lines' Delta U is a three-pronged program designed to support continuous learning for employees through formal education beyond the workplace.

Delta's world headquarters is in Atlanta, Georgia, but it has about 60,000 employees based throughout the United States and in many countries overseas. In cooperation with its worldwide partners, Delta offers over 5,200 flights a day to over 400 destinations in 77 countries. That extensive operation and diverse employee base creates significant challenges for Delta's Learning Services Organization.

Delta U originated in response to a 1999 employee survey which found that many employees were looking for greater opportunities to learn and advance their careers. An under-used educational assistance program was formalized, and coupled with partnerships between organizations that support higher education and the institutions of higher education themselves, Delta U was formed. In January 2000 a General Manager was selected to spearhead the program.

The main objective of Delta U is to facilitate employee access to schools and programs so they can quickly and cost-effectively complete their undergraduate and graduate degrees. The program directly supports two of Delta's HR strategies:

  1. To build a highly skilled, globally diverse, and motivated workforce
  2. Provide opportunities for employees to learn and grow.

Delta U consists of three key elements:

  1. Innovative Educational Support: Facilitates achievement of a college-level education through unique partnerships with organizations that facilitate higher education, such as the American Council on Education (ACE), Degree Club, Kaplan Test Prep and Delta Employees Credit Union.
  2. Academic Partnerships: Provides employees access to special program offerings with selected academic institutions through onsite access, online learning, and reduced tuition costs. Partner institutions include Cardean University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Georgia State University, University of Cincinnati, and University of Texas TeleCampus.
  3. Educational Assistance Programs: Offsets employee costs of tuition and other expenses associated with pursuing job related professional certification and academic degree completion.

Through an integrated relationship of these three programs and services, Delta U facilitates employee ownership of their development and of their careers.

Delta U took shape gradually throughout the year 2000 and into early 2001. Delta's Technical Operations Center (aircraft maintenance) had a relationship with the American Council on Education (ACE) to review their Delta training courses for recommendation for college credit. In 2000 the ACE relationship was incorporated into Delta U. Now over 85 training courses offered at Delta are recommended by ACE for one to six college credits—depending on the length and content of the course. By earning college credit by taking Delta training courses, employees can get their degrees sooner and take fewer university-based classes, which reduces the cost of their education. It also reduces educational reimbursement costs for Delta and validates the quality of corporate training.

Working with representatives of Delta's learning community, Corporate Recruitment and Talent Development, and Human Resources, Delta U identified a group of institutions as potential partners. Each possessed multiple dimensions. They were strategically located and had demonstrated employee engagement. By the end of 2000, Delta U had established robust relationships with Georgia State University, which offered an undergraduate degree in aviation management, and with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, which offered undergraduate and graduate degrees in technical aviation. In 2001, Delta U formalized a relationship with Cardean University to offer a fully online MBA degree.

Since then, two additional academic partnerships have been negotiated. The University of Texas TeleCampus offers an online, accredited MBA degree developed in association with U.T. campuses in Arlington, Brownsville, Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio, Tyler, and at U.T. Pan American. In addition, the University of Cincinnati College of Business Administration offers undergraduate and graduate degrees to Delta employees, family members and affiliate employees.

Also in 2001, Delta U began to actively seek other academic support partners who could facilitate the adult learner's return to school while minimizing time and costs of degree completion. Delta U ultimately partnered with the DegreeClub, a program offering adult academic counseling. After an evaluation of the learner's previous work, life, and academic experiences, the DegreeClub provides the employee with a choice of schools that will provide the greatest value for that previous experience towards the completion of their desired degree. This service ultimately reduces the amount of time an employee takes to complete their degree and reduces overall costs.

Delta U also has agreements in place with Kaplan Test Prep for their services and with the Delta Employee Credit Union to offer student loan programs to Delta employees. Negotiations are ongoing for other potential strategic partners.

With these elements in place, Delta U prepared a formal launch for February 2001. A Delta U logo and look were created; a communication campaign was executed that included brochures distributed to the worldwide workforce; posters were presented throughout the Delta system, staff presentations, and briefings; a Web site on the Delta intranet was created; an article in the company employee news magazine was featured; and departmental newsletters were circulated. Delta U management met with HR representatives throughout the organization to provide them with the tools they needed to support the program.

As a result of these efforts, the program has grown from 788 participants in 1998 to over 1,700 participants today. Over 315 participants accrued college level credit recommendations through the ACE program. On average, that's a saving of $1,824 per participant toward the cost of their degree. Employees taking advantage of Delta U programs are four percent more likely to stay with the company.

Employee success stories are featured on the Delta U Web site. They highlight how the academic support afforded by the full spectrum of alliances facilitated each employee's return to school. Many say that without this support, they would not have overcome the obstacles facing adult learners who want to return to school.

Here are some specifics of ways the Delta U program has benefited employees and Delta.

Out of 565 participants, 89 employees requested transcripts in 2002. On average, each participant received five college credits, reducing the number of required courses by two. At $152/credit hour, a cost savings of $66,610 was reported. Each participant saved $748, offsetting their out-of-pocket expenses. Delta's credit hour cost savings in 2002 was $47,890.

DegreeClub: (data based on 30 advisees)
This program saved employee an average of 1.22 years towards completion of their desired degree.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU)
ERAU has 380 students in Delta's onsite programs and using one class per term, per student, Delta saw a cost savings of $587,430 in educational assistance costs. Employees saved an average $1,605 per term by participating in the extended campus program, which offsets their out-of-pocket expenses. Additionally, they enjoy the geographic convenience of onsite access in Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Dallas/Fort Worth. Delta will launch onsite classes in Salt Lake City in 2003.

Georgia State University (GSU)
GSU has 20 students enrolled in Delta's onsite program. GSU waives their $330 per term student fee. Averaging three terms per year each student saved $990, off setting out-of-pocket expenses. In 2002, Delta saw a cost savings of $19,800 in educational assistance costs.

Robin Stricklin has been with Delta Air Lines for more than 25 years. She began in Chicago as a college graduate in an entry level position at the airport. She has held positions of increasing responsibility in a variety of divisions of the company including Reservation Sales, Marketing and Sales, Air Logistics, Airport Customer Service, Automation/Distribution, and Training. She is currently a leader in Delta's central Learning Services Organization. Her responsibilities include Delta U and Leadership Development.


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