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The cost of free college

The cost of free college

Good morning! This Monday, Amazon reminds us that nothing in life is free, Apple employees have to get more COVID-19 tests, Twitch sues the "hate raiders," and Google Companions might make hybrid work less painful.

The Big Story

No such thing as 'free'

Earlier this month, Amazon announced it will pay "full college tuition" for its front-line employees and expand its education reimbursement benefits to include bachelor's degrees. The company will also grant hourly workers access to all of its new Amazon Career Choice programs after three months of employment.

Education benefits can help attract workers in an unusually tight labor market. And an (Amazon-sponsored) Gallup poll found that upskilling is now one of the most important benefits for workers across the board, especially for younger workers.

But "free college" is not what it seems. Education researchers told Protocol that there is little evidence these programs have any power to create real economic and social change.

  • Federal tax rules limit tuition reimbursements to just over $5,000 as a "fringe benefit" before they start to count as taxable income, so any education that costs more than that is not typically covered under these programs.
  • The cost limit means that most of the programs offered under benefits like Amazon Career Choice are so cheap they might be limiting quality and options for people who could benefit far more from something even a little bit more expensive, or more tailored specifically to their needs, education researcher Stephanie Hall said.

The highest-paid and most-educated workers tend to take advantage of these programs more than everyone else because they have the time and flexibility to make it happen, according to almost all of the research on upskilling.

  • Part-time bachelor's degrees for hourly workers just don't make sense, Hall said. Hourly jobs are often very demanding in terms of time and energy, leaving little left over for educational needs.
  • And while skills training and certificate programs might be more attainable, Iris Palmer, an education adviser at the New America Foundation, believes that a bachelor's degree on this kind of schedule would realistically take between eight and 16 years to complete.
  • "Amazon, if they scheduled their drivers and delivery people so they could take bathroom breaks, that might be a more expensive thing to address than tuition," Palmer said.

Workers have shown rapidly increasing interest in enrolling in the current Career Choice options over the last year, Amazon said. And it's not just Amazon investing heavily here; Guild Education, the most well-known upskilling startup, hit a valuation of $3.7 billion this summer in its most recent fundraising round. Across the board, from Chipotle to Walmart and now to Amazon, companies are looking to offer these benefits. But do the benefits actually benefit the employees? Researchers are pretty skeptical.

— Anna Kramer (email | twitter)

A version of this story also appeared on Read it here.


The future of retail is digital, experiential – and happening now in China. U.S. businesses are going digital and using Alibaba to create immersive experiences to sell to the 900 million Chinese consumers on Alibaba's ecommerce platforms.

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People Are Talking

Facebook's Nick Clegg took issue with The Facebook Files:

  • "We take it seriously, and we don't shy away from scrutiny and criticism. But we fundamentally reject this mischaracterization of our work and impugning of the company's motives."

Tesla's use of the phrase Full Self-Driving is "misleading and irresponsible," new NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said:

  • "It has clearly misled numerous people to misuse and abuse technology."

On Protocol | Enterprise: GitHub's Erica Brescia thinks hybrid work is the future:

  • "My view is that if you really want to build a global and truly diverse team, hybrid is the winning strategy."

Coming this week

.NEXT begins today. The four-day conference is all about cloud computing, and speakers include former White House CIO Theresa Payton, Zoom CIO Harry Moseley and, err, John Taylor from Duran Duran.

London Tech Week also starts today. This year's conference will cover issues like the digital divide and tackling the pandemic.

The Black Is Tech Conference also starts today. The weeklong event will take place virtually, and includes sessions on topics such as diversity in cybersecurity and how content design can be used as a tool for advocacy.

CIO's Future of Work Summit begins tomorrow. There are sessions with execs from companies, like VMware, DocuSign, Darktrace and Samsung.

Microsoft is hosting a special online event Wednesday. The company is expected to talk about devices and Windows 11.

In Other News

  • Facebook's users worked against the platform's COVID-19 vaccine push, according to another Facebook Files story. Anti-vaccine comments flooded posts trying to encourage vaccinations, countering the platform's efforts to get people inoculated.
  • "Ted Lasso" won big at the Emmys. Streaming services had a big night in general, but the awards turned into a bit of an Apple TV+ party.
  • All Apple employees are required to get COVID-19 tests on a regular basisif they plan to return to an office or store, while unvaccinated employees need more-frequent tests. The company hasn't announced a vaccine mandate.
  • SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission is complete. The three-day spaceflight by four civilians raised millions of dollars for St. Jude.
  • On Protocol | Policy: Twitch may set a big legal precedent. While it's not uncommon for a tech company to sue users, Twitch's lawsuit targeting two anonymous "hate raiders" could inspire other platforms figuring out how to deal with harassment.
  • Tim Cook is keeping mum about Apple's workplace issues. Activist employees claim to have asked him a number of questions about topics like pay equity and Texas' abortion restrictions, but Cook is said to have only answered a couple during an Apple all-staff meeting.
  • The Biden administration is trying to rein in crypto attacks. The Treasury Department plans to impose sanctions, among other actions, targeting hackers who use digital currency to make money from ransomware attacks.

One More Thing

You've got a (Google Companion) in me

Google rolled out a few tools earlier this month, including Workspace dashboards for project collaboration and the ability to call through Meet on both a phone and desktop. But in November, it's rolling out Companion mode, which will let people who are working from home more easily connect to conference room meetings.

In Companion mode, anyone can access Meet features like screen sharing, live captions and more. It also gives people who are at the office their own little video squares, so nobody working from home feels left out. Now if only free snacks were available at home, too.


This year, China will become the first country where ecommerce sales will outpace brick-and-mortar transactions. U.S. businesses are using Alibaba's platforms to sell to 900 million digitally savvy consumers in China and untap new opportunities for long-term growth.

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