Chipotle unlocks a retention secret with its debt-free tuition program

The fast casual, which is expanding its free college offerings to include more areas of study, said employees who participate have a retention rate 3.5 times higher than those who don’t.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
Photo courtesy of Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle Mexican Grill is expanding on a retention-boosting free college degree program it launched in 2019, the fast casual announced Thursday.

The expanded “debt-free degree” offerings include programs in agriculture, culinary, hospitality and supply chain, joining a roster of 75 different business and technology degrees available through Chipotle’s partnership with Guild Education.

Since Chipotle started its Cultivate Education program in 2016, nearly 10,000 employees have enrolled in classes and have taken advantage of either tuition reimbursement or debt-free degrees, the company said. 

The chain so far has seen strong retention and professional development metrics among employees participating in the free-tuition program, it said. Those enrolled in the program have a retention rate 3.5 times higher than the typical Chipotle worker. And workers who take advantage of the benefit have proven 7.5 times more likely to move into management at Chipotle than those who do not.

Among the workers who are studying under the free tuition program, 85% are at the hourly “crew member” level at Chipotle, the chain said in a statement.

“Diversifying our debt-free degree program with new majors and partner universities makes our educational benefits even more inclusive,” said Marissa Andrada, chief diversity, inclusion and people officer at Chipotle. “Through our partnership with Guild, we are committed to accelerating our employees’ professional growth and helping them achieve personal success by offering opportunities to pursue career paths in their particular area of interest.”

Under the expanded program options, people who have worked at Chipotle for at least 120 days can pursue a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Sciences or Rangeland Sciences online from Oregon State University, associate and bachelor's culinary arts degrees online from Johnson & Wales University, bachelor’s degree programs in hospitality from several universities, and supply chain degree programs from Oregon State University and the University of Denver.

Starting in November 2019, Chipotle began offering all upfront tuition costs for employees enrolled in 75 different business and technology and degree programs at select universities.

The debt-free tuition program was an expansion of Chipotle’s Cultivate Education initiative, which provided $20 million in employee tuition assistance from 2017 to 2019.

In addition to the selected areas of study, eligible Chipotle employees can be reimbursed for up to $5,250 a year in tuition at the school of their choice.



Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content


Trend or fad? These restaurant currents could go either way

Reality Check: A number of ripples were evident in the business during the first half of the year. The question is, do they have staying power?


Starbucks' value offer is a bad idea

The Bottom Line: It’s not entirely clear that price is the reason Starbucks is losing traffic. If it isn’t, the company’s new value offer could backfire.


Struggling I Heart Mac and Cheese franchisees push back against their franchisor

Operators say most of them aren't making money and want a break on their royalties. But they also complain about receiving expired cheese from closed stores. "Don't send us moldy product."


More from our partners