Taco Bell is helping employees afford to go to college. Two satisfied customers tell Moneyish their stories
Francis Spencer didn’t speak a word of English when she moved to the mainland U.S. from Puerto Rico in 2005. But the then 22-year-old single mom had to get to work immediately to support her two kids before she could continue her own education, so she got a job at a Hermitage, Tenn. Taco Bell.
“I used to carry a Spanish-English dictionary in my pocket,” Spencer, who started out in the kitchen making tacos and Crunchwraps, tells Moneyish. “When I came to the U.S., I put my life on hold for my children … I needed my kids to have a better education, and I knew they were going to get that here.”
Spencer, who hadn’t finished high school, learned English in five months through her coworkers. She worked her way up the chain by putting in 16-hour days to support her family and pay for a babysitter. She hustled her way to shift supervisor after 13 years with the company and earned her GED. And now Taco Bell is continuing her education in an even more essential way: By giving the now 35-year-old a free college education.
Taco Bell announced earlier this month that it was partnering with Guild Education to provide financial support for schooling to all of its 210,000 employees across 7,000 restaurants in the U.S. Now Taco Bell team members will have access to personalized college advisors, plus tuition discounts of up to $5,250 per calendar year – and paid up front so that employees don’t have to swallow any out-of-pocket costs. The program is available for employees on the first day they start work at Taco Bell.
Additionally, all employees can get college credit for on-the-job restaurant training, which could save someone another $5,000 in academic credits, bringing their potential total savings to more than $10,000.
Elidia Tlaseca, 31, started working at a Taco Bell in a Fullerton, California in 2008 as a cashier while going to community college. But when her mom got sick, she had to drop out of school to work full-time to help out with her family’s finances.
“We were struggling. I had to help out with the bills and the mortgage,” Tlaseca says. “[And] the fear of debt stopped me from going back.”
So when she found out that she qualified for financial aid through Taco Bell — and she could take online classes, which fit around her daytime work schedule — she decided to enroll. The fast food company has provided nearly $6,000 a year for her classes, and she’s only had to pay $300 out of pocket so far, she says. Now she’s majoring in psychology, and is on track to graduate in 2019 with hopes of working for a non-profit.
Spencer earned her high school diploma through the restaurant’s GED initiative, which provided her with free schooling. She will start classes at Southwest Tennessee Community College in the spring, where she wants to study forensic science.
“I’ve always been interested in the medical field; it intrigues me,” Spencer says. “Forensic science gives a voice to people who have died unexpectedly. I want to help communities solve problems.”
This financial assistance is the only way Spencer could pursue her own higher education without being saddled with student loan debt, especially considering she has two kids to put through college. Today, the average student owes at least $37,172 in loans, and Americans collectively owe more than $1.48 trillion, according to Student Loan Hero.com. Though it’s worth noting that people with a college degree end up earning more money — according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, those with less than a high school degree make $25,636 per year, while those with a bachelor’s degree make $59,124 per year.
Taco Bell is one of a number of fast food restaurants that offer tuition assistance to employees. Burger King provides scholarships available to employees and high school students from $1,000 to up to $25,000. And Chipotle has also teamed up with Guild Education to offer financial aid to its employees who can potentially end up paying as little as $250 a year for college.
Taco Bell has already seen benefits in providing financial support for employees’ education. After running a six-month pilot education program last year, the brand saw a 34% increase in retention for those employees enrolled in the education program.
“I’ve given them [almost] 15 years of my life. If they’re willing to help me out, I’ll take it!” Spencer says.
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