Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2019

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Hundreds take MGM up on offer to pay employees’ college tuition

Lisel Westlake

Lisel Westlake

Lisel Westlake hadn’t thought about pursuing higher education until she realized it would be imperative to her career. She realized she needed to do something.

But barriers like cost and scheduling always stood in her way.

Now those barriers have been demolished, thanks to a free online college program offered through her employer.

Westlake, who manages the MGM Resorts International corporate security team, is joining more than 500 other MGM employees who have enrolled in the company’s College Opportunity Program through the Nevada System of Higher Education. She will pursue a degree in business management through the College of Southern Nevada this fall.

The purpose of the program is to help employees like Westlake advance their studies when they otherwise couldn’t due to scheduling or cost obstacles, MGM officials said. The partnership between MGM and NSHE was first approved in September. So far, 511 students have applied to the program.

“I am thrilled to see so many people taking advantage of this fantastic opportunity offered by MGM Resorts,” said Regents Chair Kevin J. Page in a statement. “I’m proud of this partnership. This will change the lives of these employees and their families, many of whom are first-generation college students. I look forward to seeing it grow in the coming years.”

For Westlake, the opportunity “means a lot” to her.

“I really wanted to go back to school but wasn’t sure if I could make that happen,” Westlake said. “When they announced the program, I was extremely excited. It answered a lot of those concerns keeping me from starting (school) right away.”

The partnership is the first of its kind, allowing eligible U.S.-based MGM employees to enroll in online classes through any NSHE institution free of charge. Similar partnerships exist like the one between Starbucks and Arizona State University, but that program doesn’t offer free online courses through the state’s other higher education institutions.

The Nevada program will start its inaugural semester this fall and will emphasize degree completion as well as putting employees in the right classes to advance both their personal and professional goals, MGM officials said.

Eligible employees can complete certificate programs, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees or master’s degrees through courses at the UNLV, UNR, Nevada State College, Great Basin College, Western Nevada College, College of Southern Nevada or Truckee Meadows Community College.

The program benefits are “twofold” for both the company and the employees, said Laura Lee, senior vice president of human resources at MGM.

“If you, for example, have an hourly employee who gets their degree and goes into management, it’s a pathway to the middle class,” she said. “We want to help continue education and grow employees.”

Westlake hopes to use her education to grow and develop in the company. Most of the higher positions, she said, require a degree.

“I have a wealth of experience, but with this competitive workforce, I’m still missing something,” she said.

A higher education could help Westlake eventually become the first female vice president of security at MGM.

“I feel like it’s an investment in me,” she said. “(The partnership) will open doors for so many people. This opportunity will be available to everyone eligible, and that impresses me and adds value to the company I work for. It can change the trajectory of anyone’s life.”

Westlake’s partner and two daughters will also be attending CSN this fall, making them all essentially classmates, she said.

“It’s kind of cool,” she said. “My mom is really excited about it too. She went to school many years ago as a single mom with all of us and can’t believe we are all in school now.”

Most of all, Westlake said, she wanted to return to school so her children and others could see that she did it.

"A personal fulfillment too, it’s never too late," she said.