President Obama Is Not Impressed With Your High School Diploma. Neither is Wal-Mart.

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[Katherine Mangu-Ward]

Earlier this month, the world's favorite smiley-faced megastore announced that it will begin offering subsidized college education to many of its 1.4 million U.S. employees. Headline writers everywhere rejoiced at the "everyday low prices" jokes that await them.

Partnering with a for-profit online-only university, Wal-Mart is planning to drop $50 million over the next three years on the program. But employees will have to kick in their own cash as well: An associate's degree will cost a Wal-Mart employee $11,700, a four-year degree would be a little more than twice that.

Meanwhile, the phrase "higher education bubble" is popping up everywhere in recent months. This is thanks (in small part) to President Obama, who announced in his first State of the Union address that "every American will need to get more than a high school diploma." But Americans have been fetishizing college diplomas for a long time now--Obama just reinforced that message and brought even more cash to the table. College has become a minimum career requirement, a basic human right, and a minimum income guarantee in the eyes of the American public.

So if we're in the middle of a culture-created, government-subsidized higher education bubble, is Wal-Mart part of the problem? Or is it the solution?

If we're going to push every 18-year-old in the country into some kind of higher education, most people will likely be better off in a programs that involves logistics and linoleum, rather than ivy and the Iliad. And, in contrast to an associate's degree in Japanese studies from Northern Virginia Community College, we know there is at least one employer interested in a Wal-Mart-subsidized logistics sheepskin: Wal-Mart.

But far more exciting than the prospect of bringing a bunch of new BAs into the world are the prospects for bringing Wal-Mart's habit of changing the way people do business into the world of education. The Chronicle of Higher Education explains how Wal-Mart selected American Public University as their provider:

As American Public turned its attention to luring the retail behemoth, it was apparently able to be more flexible than other colleges and willing to "go the extra mile" to accommodate Wal-Mart, said Jeffrey M. Silber, a stock analyst and managing director of BMO Capital Markets. That flexibility included customizing programs.

That flexibility also includes giving course credit for on-the-job time and training: "Employees could earn up to 45 percent of the credit for an associate or bachelor's degree at APU "based on what they have learned in their career at Wal-Mart," according to the retailer's Web site." Which raises the important question of whether there will be more than one employer interested in those Wal-Mart degrees. (Also of interest: Will Wal-Mart students be eligible for federal education loans?)

Meanwhile, even willing for-profit education providers haven't yet accepted what it really means to become part of the Wal-Mart supply chain:
 

[American Public's chief executive, Wallace E. Boston Jr.] said the relationship was going well, but the giant retailer--used to dealing with thousands of suppliers around the world--was still adjusting to the unusual nature of their agreement.

"We had to keep reminding them in a nice way that we weren't an outsourced provider, we're a university," Boston said.

But American Public is an outsourced provider--and there's no shame in that. Wal-Mart pushes its suppliers. Hard. The company brings dramatic change to every industry that they touch, and higher ed will be no exception. Competitors will have to work harder, suppliers will be bitter at first and then, if the relationship works out, they stand to make a lot of money. If and when the higher ed bubble bursts, Wal-Mart's employees may not be thrilled to find themselves holding half a BA with Wal-Mart's fingerprints on it. But Wal-Mart is brilliant at helping Americans will get more of what they want, on the cheap. And right now, Americans want college degrees. 

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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