Target is the latest employer to increase higher education benefits as the tight labor market continues.

The Minneapolis-based employer said Wednesday that it would offer its 340,000 front-line workers access to free bachelor's and associate degree programs, including the cost of textbooks.

The benefit applies to both part- and full-time workers in stores, distribution centers and headquarters. Under the initiative, they will have access to 250 mostly online programs offered through 40 colleges and universities.

Target plans to invest $200 million in the program over the next four years to help workers eliminate student debt and promote equitable access to education. It is part of the retailer's new "Target Forward" sustainability program that includes equity and inclusion goals.

"Target employs team members at every life stage and helps our team learn, develop and build their skills, whether they're with us for a year or a career," said Melissa Kremer, chief human resources officer, in a corporate blog announcing the benefit. "A significant number of our hourly team members build their careers at Target, and we know many would like to pursue additional education opportunities. We don't want the cost to be a barrier for anyone, and that's where Target can step in to make education accessible for everyone."

Kiera Fernandez, the retailer's chief of diversity, said last month that "on a macro level," Target is not being affected by the worker shortage that has emerged since pandemic restrictions loosened.

However, key competitor Walmart announced a similar higher-education benefit last month. Meatpackers JBS and Hormel both offer free access to community college programs for employees and their families. Amazon also offers tuition toward certain higher education programs for its workers at distribution center.

Other employers are offering signing bonuses to fill open positions. Target is among employers that have increased pay, with the retailer's starting wage now at $15 an hour.

Target said its benefit is the "most comprehensive educational assistance program available in retail."

It already offers a traditional tuition reimbursement program for job-related courses, paying up to $3,000 toward undergraduate degrees, $4,000 for graduate programs and $5,200 for MBA programs. In addition, it offers student loan financing through Target Credit Union and GED program reimbursement.

If employees choose master's programs through the schools in the new program, Target will pay $10,000 annually.

Target partnered with Guild Education for the program, which includes access to courses at University of Arizona, eCornell, Morehouse College and more. Right now, there are no Minnesota institutions in the program, but a spokeswoman said the company is working to expand the number of colleges in the partnership.