Floridians concerned about the rising cost of college have a new option: go work with Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney World announced an expansion of the Disney Aspire program launched last August that will allow eligible Disney employees to attend the University of Central Florida (UCF) essentially for free.

Disney Aspire programs have previously covered costs for employees to obtain high school diplomas, vocational training, English and Spanish classes, and college and master’s degrees. This new expansion will cover 100% of tuition costs at UCF upfront, and reimburse employees for application fees and required course materials and books, according to a Disney and UCF press release. Employees will have the option of many degree programs and classes, some on campus and some offered partially or exclusively online.

The program is available to approximately 85,000 Disney World employees who have worked full-time or part-time for at least 90 days. So far, about 40 percent have signed up for Disney Aspire, and more than 6,000 are already taking classes. They will also have to earn admission to UCF and meet the in-state residency requirements. Any employees who moved to Florida too recently to qualify for in-state tuition could continue to work at Disney until their residency was established and then apply.

Disney has dedicated $150 million so far in enabling their employees to further their educations. It’s a major investment into a generous employee benefit that has the potential to significantly change their employees’ lives for decades to come.

Recently, many liberal labor activists and Democratic politicians have advocated for raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour or even higher. Is that in the best interest of employees?

Disney and the other theme parks in the Central Florida area have historically paid above minimum wage, which is $8.46 for 2019 in Florida, in order to attract better qualified employees. Currently, Disney pays around $9 to $12 per hour for many of the entry level, non-management jobs (guest services, characters, cashiers, etc.) at Walt Disney World, according to the most recent data this month at Indeed.com.

Giving 85,000 employees even a $3 per hour raise would cost more than $10.2 million for a 40 hour work week. Would Disney still be willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in college tuition if they were forced to raise wages? They very well may chose not to, or to drastically reduce the number of employees eligible to participate.

This is the kind of benefit that advocacy movements like #FightFor15 often neglect. Instead of forcing through law or pressuring through protests Disney to raise their base wages, Disney is voluntarily partnering with a well-regarded local university to offer this educational benefit.

Disney benefits from a more skilled and educated workforce, and increased employee loyalty, and the employees benefit from not only continuing their education but doing so in a way that does not impair their financial futures. The fact that Disney included entry level and even part-time employees — one only need to work 90 days in order to be eligible — makes the program accessible to those who can most benefit from a chance to advance themselves.

Isn’t the free market grand?

Photo of Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World by Phil Whitehouse via Flickr.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.