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Walmart will pay for its 1.4 million U.S. workers to go to college

A Walmart location in Burbank, California.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Walmart is the biggest employer in the world, with approximately 2.3 million employees worldwide.

On Wednesday, the behemoth retailer announced that it would offer subsidized higher education for all 1.4 million of its employees in the U.S., including full-time, part-time and salaried Walmart and Sam's Club workers.

The cost to workers will be just $1 a day.

This small investment is a way to increase completion rates says Erica Jones, Walmart's senior manager of communications.

"What research has found is that when people have a personal investment in their education and in empowering and engaging themselves, they're more apt to finish," she explains to CNBC Make It. "So that $1 a day is kind of that skin in the game. They're essentially having their education paid for but it's also their own investment."

Indeed, at just $365 a year, the cost of earning a college degree for a Walmart employee is less than the average cost of a single college credit.

Workers can choose to earn an associate's or bachelor's degree in business or supply chain management from the University of Florida, Brandman University and Bellevue University — nonprofit schools selected for their high graduation rates among working students, as well as their online offerings.

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The program will also pair workers with an education coach who will reach out once a week for the duration of the program to help with school applications, explain financial aid forms and make sure students are on track to graduate on time.

"That's one other way that this program goes that extra step to ensure that the associates have the support that's going to get them across the finish line," says Jones.

This emphasis on completion is not just beneficial for workers, it also makes sure the company gets a return on its investment. "A successful, well trained engaged workforce is one of the most important ways that Walmart's going to win the future of retail," says Jones.

Employers like Starbucks, Chipotle, McDonald's and Amazon have rolled out similar educational benefits this year, raising the question of whether companies are investing in education because it's the right thing to do, or simply to help their bottom line. In this case, the answer is most likely both.

"Investing in the personal and professional success of our associates is vital to Walmart's future success," says Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart U.S. in a statement. "We know training and learning opportunities empower associates to deliver for customers while growing and advancing in their careers."

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The gigantic retailer has long faced scrutiny from labor groups, received criticism for its anti-union policies and been accused of depressing wages. Just this year, Walmart raised its base pay by $2 an hour to $11 an hour, while major competitor Target recently committed to paying workers a minimum of $15 an hour. CNBC estimates that Walmart's revenue per employee is $199,500. Educational benefits may be one way to increase employee retention and improve recruitment efforts.

The benefit will help a huge number of working Americans gain access to higher education, which remains the country's strongest engine of economic mobility. The company expects 68,000 employees to sign up right away; there is no up-front investment from workers required and no GPA minimum.

"When we talk to [our associates] about what they want to do and what's preventing them from going back and pursuing their degree, you know, cost is one of the biggest things that comes up," says Jones. "So we wanted to provide affordable access and remove as many barriers as possible."

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