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When Kile Studer dropped out of high school in 2013, he didn’t know if he would ever wear a cap and gown. But thanks to a high school diploma program through his employer, McDonald’s, Studer tossed his cap under the golden arches at his graduation celebration on Sept. 20.

“Taking that opportunity and really pushing for a diploma was a huge thing,” Studer said. “And it was a big thing for myself, to kind of prove to myself that I can do it and that I should do it.”

Archways to Opportunity offers several educational programs to McDonald’s employees, including educational/career advising, English language education, tuition assistance and a high school diploma program through Career Online High School, according to its website.

Since its launch in 2014, nearly 75,000 employees have participated in Archways to Opportunity, according to the website. About 1,500 of them graduated from Career Online High School like Studer.

According to Jenny Stevenson, director of operations for the seven restaurants owned by franchisee Mike Sandoval in the Denver metro area, Archways to Opportunity is available to all employees in good standing after they work an average of 15 hours per week for 90 days.

Studer has continuously moved up the “career ladder” for the nine years he has worked at McDonald’s, Stevenson said. He currently has two roles: department manager in training and operations technology person 2, which means he supports operations through installing new equipment and software.

Studer said he had known about Archways to Opportunity since he first started working at McDonald’s as a crew member. In November 2020, he enrolled in the high school diploma program.

Whereas some people take a General Education Development (GED) test to demonstrate a high school level of knowledge, the Career Online High School differs in that students take classes and earn a legitimate diploma.

Studer completed classes in English, social studies, math, science, physical education and elective courses that earned him a certificate in commercial driving. The classes were all self-paced, which Studer said worked well with his learning style.

“It was never a good fit, being taught in a classroom,” he said. “Having that free range that (this program) offered me was a huge, huge help.”

Although the program was mostly independent, Studer said he had an academic counselor who supported him, particularly when he was struggling in a class. She gave Studer her contact information and sent additional academic materials with highlighted notes to help him study, he said.

“It was tremendous having someone by my side,” he said.

In addition to academic support, McDonald’s offers its employees financial support by covering the Career Online High School tuition. Stevenson said employees can earn up to $2,500 per year in tuition assistance as a crew person and up to $3000 per year as a manager, which they can put towards college.

For Stevenson, the opportunity to support employees in their education is rewarding.

“We are all about making people better at life, not just here in our four walls. Our goal is to make them better humans, right?,” she said. “So if we can be a partner in that and help them be what they want to be, we all win.”