Published on 2019/01/14
The EvoLLLution | From Dream to LiFE: How the University of Memphis Forged a Learning Partnership with FedEx
Crafting intentional educational partnerships with major employers helps to address skills gaps while creating pathways to enriching careers and lifelong learning for individuals.
The Origins of Learning Inspired by Fedex (LiFE)

FedEx Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Alan B. Graf, Jr., also happens to be the chairman of the University of Memphis Board of Trustees, and when FedEx was looking to address employee attrition he saw an opportunity to connect the two institutions. He approached University of Memphis President M. David Rudd, and suggested that UofM Global could help address FedEx’s challenges.

Soon thereafter, UofM Global staff met with representatives from FedEx to learn more about the company’s needs. FedEx wanted all employees in its Hub to have a pathway to college admission, regardless of their educational history. Due to their employees’ demanding work schedules, it was also important to FedEx for the curriculum to be available online and include a robust support structure.

Over the next several months, the two parties worked diligently to create Learning inspired by FedEx (LiFE), which launched in August.

Formalizing the Pathway to Bachelor’s Degrees for FedEx Employees

LiFE has two broad tracks to get FedEx learners to their degree: A pre-college path and a direct admission path. It was important for both the University of Memphis and FedEx to be able to meet all potential students where they already were on their educational journey. We did not want to have options only for those ready to succeed in college coursework. This desire gave rise to the Prep Academy, a comprehensive pre-college path that prepares students to succeed in traditional online classes.

The Prep Academy is for students who need their high school equivalency (HSE), as well as for students that already have their HSE but need more support before being admitted into the university. The University of Memphis has partnered with local organizations in every city where FedEx employees can participate in LiFE to ensure that students are properly prepared to take the HSE test in their state.

For students who have their HSE, the next stage of LiFE is the Prep Academy Course. This is a self-paced competency-based course that prepares students for an online college experience. Designed to help students develop the skills they need to succeed in a postsecondary environment, the course is comprised of four college courses rolled into a single experience. Once they complete the course, students are immediately admitted into the university, and their time in the Prep Academy is transferred in as 12 credit hours.

Finally, learners deemed already prepared for online college courses by our admissions specialist may be admitted directly into the university. Depending on the timing of their admission and credit needs, student are placed into full-term courses, part-of-term courses or continuing education courses. This guarantees that students are no longer bound by traditional semester start dates, and ensures they have the fastest path to graduation.

As for the programs available to LiFE students, FedEx identified our Bachelor of Professional Studies Major with a concentration in Organizational Leadership as uniquely aligned with their staffing needs. This degree is housed within our University College. It is an interdisciplinary program emphasizing leadership, communication and the social-historical context of contemporary organizations. Through general education, coordinated study and elective requirements, students have the latitude to customize their degree experience to align with their personal leadership interests. The degree is available fully online through UofM Global, and it includes the same comprehensive set of support services available to all of our students.

The majority of LiFE students will be required to earn this degree, but exceptions are made for students who already possess significant credits towards another degree.

Support Services Available to LiFE Students

UofM was tasked by FedEx to provide a high-touch experience that proactively matched students’ needs for available resources and appropriate pathways.

From their first engagement, potential students are assigned a coach who guides them through the sign-up process. This coach follows the student’s journey, providing support and encouragement every step of the way. In the Prep Academy, students have a math and writing tutor for each section of the course.

Additionally, all students in LiFE are able to use our synchronous online tutoring platform, which allows them to receive face-to-face support. Once admitted to UofM Global, students can access all of the student resources available to our student body.

Getting LiFE Up and Running 

While the aforementioned Prep Academy was critical to addressing FedEx’s needs, this novel approach to earning admission may be useful in other cases across campus. We have already had conversations with our Admissions staff to consider using the Prep Academy as a form of conditional admission.

Delivering courses through our Professional and Continuing Education unit has enabled us to be more spontaneous and accommodate demand. For instance, using an open onboarding process to accommodate LiFE expansion to Hubs outside of Memphis as well as to FedEx’s new hire orientations warranted course offerings outside the traditional full-term format. In fact, during September and October we launched a series of upper division courses every two weeks.

LiFE students will benefit from many of our existing innovations intended to enhance success and reduce cost and time-to-degree. Upon inquiry, students are directed to SmartStart, our in-house online readiness tool. Through SmartStart, we try to determine whether students are adequately resourced to complete online coursework. If we find a student lacks appropriate resources, such as a computer, we set them up with a loaner iPad. FedEx was generous enough to donate a number of iPads to the program.

As an institution that prides itself on acknowledging that students may acquire college-level learning from any number of non-traditional sources, our staff has worked diligently to determine the college-level experiential learning credit (ELC) embedded within the robust inventory of corporate training that FedEx provides to its Hub employees. Many of the first ELC awards went to management-level Hub employees who submitted their extensive training records for review. For example, our staff reviewed the training record of one manager who had a 27-year lapse in college enrollment, and found that he had equivalency of 30 credits, enabling him to target Spring 2019 for degree completion.

LiFE students also benefit from a direct billing arrangement negotiated between FedEx and the university. While FedEx offers a generous corporate-wide tuition reimbursement program, less than four percent of Hub employees were able to take advantage of the offering due to the program’s significant out-of-pocket expenses. For the Memphis Hub alone, that meant that fewer than 500 of its approximately 12,000 employees were using the program each year. Removing these upfront costs has cleared a path for more than 1,500 Memphis Hub employees to join us for their journey toward degree completion.

LiFE students returning or transferring to the University of Memphis with 90 credits or more will benefit from our nationally acclaimed degree completion program, the Finish Line. In the past four years, the low-to-no cost opportunities available through the Finish Line have enabled over 500 students to complete their degrees.

Looking to the Future of LiFE

The Prep Academy is a work in progress. As proud as we are of the concept, we realize a self-paced, online format may not accommodate all learners. We are looking into revisions that will enhance our ability to serve all learning styles. A few other operating units within FedEx are interested in exploring how LiFE would benefit their employees. In the near-term, both parties want to assess the status. As would be expected, FedEx wants to assess the impact on employee retention. We are keen to assess student success, and we expect LiFE to be a catalyst for future projects that connect students to the University of Memphis.

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