Medtronic this summer rolled out a program to pay all undergraduate college tuition costs for employees in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Since the program started in early June, the company has seen more than 1,100 staffers express interest from 44,000 eligible employees. They can choose any course or degree program at six universities, including Arizona State University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, with online learning.

"We're off to a good start," said Dr. Sally Saba, Medtronic's chief inclusion and diversity officer. "It seems that we are meeting an unmet need that we had."

Medtronic has seen more than 250 applicants and 100 enrollments for the university programs. The process starts with an employee requesting more information through the program's web site.

The medical device company is paying the tuition costs up front for employees. Even its newest hires can access the no-strings-attached program from their first day of employment.

Medtronic executives see the effort as much more than just picking up the tab for education expenses.

"A bigger and more substantial role not only can but must be played by corporate America in order to really solve the enduring systemic inequities in our communities," Saba said.

She said the idea emerged and evolved from discussions in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

"We are doing this so that we can effect change on a systemic community level," Saba said. "We know that the systemic inequities cause the financial constraints on talent. A lot of talent just can't afford the upfront cost."

The medtech giant is based in Ireland; its operational headquarters are in Fridley and it has large production facilities in Puerto Rico. Globally, the company employs 95,000.

Saba said that Medtronic does not yet know how much the program will cost the company.

"We did not cap it at a certain number," said Saba. "We made the commitment. We said 'We will do this'."

In 2020, Medtronic was a founding member of the OneTen program, a national effort from business leaders with the goal of moving 1 million Black Americans into living wage jobs in a decade. The company has pledged $30 million over 10 years to the initiative.

Medtronic CEO Geoff Martha is on OneTen's advisory board. Cargill and Target are also involved with OneTen.

Only about half of employers offer some kind of education benefit to employees. The 2022 Employee Benefits Survey from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 48% of companies offered graduate or undergraduate assistance. That's down from 56% in 2019.

SHRM noted that the drop in education assistance numbers were "potentially revealing where organizations rolling back professional development benefits chose to do so."

The bulk of education benefit programs offered by employers are tuition reimbursement programs. Employees usually have to pay for the costs upfront and later get reimbursed by the company. Medtronic will also continue its existing tuition reimbursement program for undergraduate and graduate education.

But Medtronic has now joined the short but growing list of companies that will cover 100% of tuition.

"That is definitely something that's not as common," said Kevin Henderson, professor of management at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Starbucks, Amazon and Disney also offer such programs, he said.

Last year, Target announced that it was offering access to free bachelor's and associate degrees for its 340,000 front-line workers. Target's program extends to part-time workers. Target said it would spend $200 million over four years on the program.

Henderson noted that some other benefits like hybrid work options can be appealing to staffers who have fewer financial resources.

"I definitely think companies are trying to figure out ways to offer benefits, programs and other developmental things to help address some of those systemic issues," said Henderson. "I applaud Medtronic's efforts. I think this is a good idea."

Saba said that Medtronic wants to remove hurdles for employee education and career development.

"Our mantra and our strategy around the impact we want to have in our communities is centered around the concept of 'zero barriers'," Saba said.