Hilton and Cengage Help Employees Earn a High School Diploma

Many hospitality workers are fortunate to receive higher education–however, a percentage of workers who never completed high school are often left without access to promotions or executive positions throughout their careers. Hilton found within their employee base, 5,000 U.S. team members have not completed high school. To provide educational access to those employees, Hilton partnered with Cengage, an online learning provider, to implement its Career Online High School (COHS) program in August 2017.

“Our program is really unique,” says Taryn Mckenzie, executive director of corporate and workforce partnerships at Cengage. “We did research and figured out that people who drop out of high school actually experience trauma. We call it ‘educational trauma.’ They want nothing to do with anything that looks like high school, feels like high school, or reminds them of high school because they have negative feelings associated with it.”

Research conducted by Cengage found that people who drop out have a higher feeling of failure, are left without a support system, and believe high school curriculum is not relevant to their lives. COHS supports students who have experienced educational trauma by providing a program designed so they cannot fail and aimed at helping them find success, confidence, and matriculation into other fields.

Each student is given an academic mentor who was also experienced dropping out of school, and the mentor coaches the student through the program. By flipping the traditional education model, students take courses pertaining to their careers in eight different areas, from food and hospitality to customer service. “It’s an independent program, giving our team members a flexible education schedule they prefer due to work and personal life,” says Gareth Fox, Hilton’s vice president of human resources—Americas.


After a background check and two weeks of pre-requisite courses, students are given the opportunity to learn at their own pace for however long they need. One credit typically takes a month to complete. Credits can be transferred from previous high school courses. For example, students who dropped out sophomore or junior year of high school already have about 10 credits, meaning they only need eight more to graduate. Mckenzie adds, “That’s the secret sauce, our formula of success, is getting them in, getting their confidence going, and then continuing through the program.”

Hilton currently has 30 employees across the country that have expressed interest in the program, and of that 30, 10 have enrolled and began a two-week, pre-requisite course. Because COHS is so new to Hilton, more employees are still discovering this opportunity. “Education and training are key components in our team members’ professional development and may help them to open a variety of opportunities within Hilton,” Fox adds. “Of our U.S. team members, more than 5,000 are candidates to earn a high school diploma, so we expect the momentum to grow.”

COHS has a 68 percent completion rate at other companies including McDonalds and Wal-Mart. Eighty percent of those graduates express interest in enrolling in post-secondary education. Not only do students who complete COHS aspire to greater career opportunities, they also see a boost in their personal life and can give confidence to others in the same position. Mckenzie says, “It’s one thing when you think about these huge corporations and big power moves that everyone is doing, but when you take it down to the individual, its the absolutely amazing impact of what just a high school diploma can do in somebody’s life.”

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Robin McLaughlin is digital editor of LODGING.