Why Anthem is willing to pay for 51,000 employees to go to college


Posted In: Case Studies

Nov • 10 • 2015

One of the nation’s largest health benefits companies, Anthem, Inc., is investing in professional development of its workforce in a partnership with the nonprofit College for America at Southern NH University—and now more than 1,000 employees are earning an accredited college degree and positioning themselves for potential promotions.

In the last several years, the Affordable Care Act has dramatically shifted the business landscape in the health insurance industry. Today, consumers rather than employers are the primary drivers of business growth. And for healthcare payers, this new customer-centric dynamic has created more competition for skilled workers.

Aimee Skinner, director of learning and development at Anthem, Inc., explained her company’s challenge: “Seventy percent of our future growth will come from consumer choice segments whose ideas of customer service are set by their interactions with popular consumer companies like Zappos, TripAdvisor and Uber. That means policyholders have come to expect 24/7 service with personalization and exceptional experiences. Overall, this shift in our business means we need a more educated and skilled workforce to meet customer expectations.”

Anthem has affiliated health plans and Medicaid managed care programs in more than 20 US states, and the on-the-ground challenges of local operations mirror the need for national consumer-centric growth. Additionally, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in New Hampshire (Anthem BCBS) has been facing workforce-related challenges common across corporations nationwide. The demographics of its associates are shifting: the average age of an associate is 49.2 years; average tenure, 14 years; and nearly two out of every three associates work from home. Moreover, it finds that its employees often lack the skills needed for promotion and to strengthen critical thinking skills, writing, analytics, and other soft skills.

Anthem has long-offered education incentives—including tuition assistance for college degree programs—but these benefits alone weren’t quite enough to keep pace with their workforce challenges.

Piloting a promising approach

In 2013, Anthem BCBS partnered with the nonprofit, fully accredited College for America at Southern New Hampshire University to pilot a workplace-applicable degree program built specifically for working adults. The program was a good fit for Anthem given its growing need for more-skilled employees—only one-third of them had an associate degree or higher. “From the very first time I heard the College for America concept explained, I was struck by how much sense it made and by how it addressed not only the challenges that working adults face in completing a degree, but also some significant challenges we faced as an employer,” explained Lisa Guertin, President of Anthem BCBS. “The decision to participate was really a no-brainer.”

 “From the very first time I heard the College for America concept explained, I was struck by how much sense it made. The decision to participate was really a no-brainer.”

—Lisa Guertin, President, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in New Hampshire

Guertin and her team were interested in seeing how the online, competency-based approach would improve skills, engagement, retention and opportunities for advancement. The program’s affordability was also a key factor.

Like 74% of US employers, Anthem offers its associates tuition assistance for higher education—up to $5,000 annually. While the benefit is generous, it is still quickly used up at a traditional college with high tuition costs, leaving employees to either cover the rest of the tuition bill or take courses over many years. College for America tuition is only $2,500 per year and students learn at a self-directed pace.  As a result, Anthem associates can earn a degree at no cost to them and often much faster than through traditional higher education options.

Educational leaps and bounds

Associates were invited into the pilot program in early 2013, and many jumped at the opportunity for higher education that could fit into their busy lives. For example, pursuing a degree had never been much of an option for Starrann Freitas. The single mother of two had poured her energy and spare time into work and raising her boys. So when she was accepted into the associate degree pilot, she didn’t waste any time and completed her degree in less than a year. A quick promotion followed, and she decided to continue and earn her bachelor’s degree, which she completed in late 2015.

“I graduated in January with my associate degree. In March, I was offered a promotion to a new position as a Corporate Communications Specialist. In October, I began the bachelor’s degree program!”

—Starrann Freitas, Anthem associate, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in New Hampshire

Michelle Coppola, an employee of more than seven years, quickly completed her associate degree through the pilot and was also promoted. “The opportunity to work at my own pace, still work my full time job, and not have to sit in classes with kids 20 years younger than me was unbelievable. I jumped in with both feet and completed my associate degree in less than a year,” shared Coppola.

These motivated women were able to use their experience to move quickly through the program. The opportunity to rapidly work on projects and master competencies is available to all students—as well as the opportunity to move at a slower pace that is right for them. Anthem BCBS anticipates that the majority of its enrollees will graduate with an associate’s degree within a two and a half-year time frame.

Going nationwide with a proven model

Based on the overwhelmingly positive results of the pilot, Guertin and her team worked with Anthem, Inc. at a national level to expand the College for America associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs to all eligible 51,000 full-time and part-time associates at no cost to the employees. “The response to the pilot exceeded my expectations, and I knew we were on to something that needed to spread beyond New Hampshire,” explained Guertin.

Jose Tomas, executive vice president and chief human resources officer (CHRO) at Anthem, Inc., echoed the sentiment: “Our partnership with College for America has proven successful for our associates who participated in the pilot program in New Hampshire and we want to build on that success by providing opportunities for education, development and career advancement to all our associates.”

In the spring of 2015, College for America and Anthem, Inc. collaborated to develop a nationwide launch plan. In June, Anthem announced the new partnership, first by informing managers about the program and opportunity, and then by encouraging associates to participate via an email from the CHRO, a co-branded web page, printed materials and desktop screen savers. The partnership received additional coverage in mainstream, local, and niche-market media. As of October 2015:

  • 10,000 expressed interest
  • 3,200 associates applied
  • 1,400 associates enrolled
  • 18 Anthem students graduated

Aimee Skinner says that, for Anthem, the College for America program represents an investment in associates and the future of the company. “One thing we love about the College for America competency-based approach is that our employees tell us how relevant the learning is to their everyday jobs and lives. We know that the degree projects often closely mirror real-life situations, so the problem-solving and communications skills employees are gaining are directly applicable to their work. It’s satisfying to know that our education investments are paying off by helping improve employee lives and the quality of our customer service,” concludes Skinner.