ORLANDO, Fla. – Madeline “Madi” Portes keeps a bucket list full of things like visiting Paris and taking violin lessons. But No. 1 was always to get her college degree, and she never forgot that as the years went by.
Portes, of Clermont, failed several times to finish her schooling, coming from poor roots and unable to afford her classes as a working adult. Maybe this was her shot at age 61 to finally get it done when Walt Disney Co. announced in 2018 it would pay tuition upfront — and books, too — for its hourly employees.
Known as Disney Aspire, it was one of the most generous employer education programs in the country. Disney vowed to invest $150 million over five years to help lift workers out of poverty by fully funding their education. The program got started as the company reportedly saved at least $1.6 billion in the first year from the GOP corporate tax cuts.
What once felt like winning the lottery is now heartbreak. Walt Disney Co. last month revealed it was ending Aspire for at least some of the 28,000 workers it is laying off across the U.S. because of the coronavirus pandemic. About 15,500 of those employees are in Orlando.
For some, the decision cuts deeper than missing a steady paycheck.
“It’s the loss of hope. It was my very last hope,” Portes said, a part-time Disney World vacation planner working on a degree in legal studies online from Brandman University in California.
About 20,000 part-time and full-time company employees signed up for the education program which lets them study at a list of schools, including the University of Central Florida and Valencia College.
Disney would not say how many students are losing their jobs or how much Disney Aspire will now cost as the company’s theme park division operates with a significantly smaller workforce in a post-coronavirus world.
“While the pandemic has challenged our business and our workforce in immeasurable ways, the Disney Aspire initiative remains important to us,” Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said in a statement. “Disney Aspire will continue to be available to our eligible employees, including those who are on furlough.”
The hourly Disney workers who will be let go in December and have already enrolled in college degrees can finish this semester. After that, it’s over, leaving many already grappling with how to pay rent and bills to decide: How do I finish my education?
Some additional resources may be available to help them at their schools, financial aid and at CareerSource Central Florida, which received $7 million in federal coronavirus funding in July.
Laid-off employees learning a trade, English or getting their GEDs through Disney Aspire will be allowed to complete their program. At Valencia College alone, 511 Disney Aspire students are studying English as a second language, according to the school.
Portes was one of six children raised by a single mother with an elementary school education growing up in a working-class neighborhood in New York City.
To make it out on her own as an adult, Portes said she needed to work. Schooling was an expense she couldn’t afford, and being a single mother herself made it more difficult.
“The majority of the reasons why I couldn’t do it on my own was the high cost of education in this country. It’s is ridiculous,” she said. “I would love to be a lawyer. Are you kidding me? I would have to like, sell my kid.”
Without a degree, Portes still found a career in the law, working as a legal assistant until she lost her job and moved to Florida where she started working for Disney in 2016.
She had been getting good grades and was more than halfway through her 120 credit degree when she learned her education is at risk. Her official layoff notices have not been sent out yet, although Portes expects to receive one and has been furloughed since the pandemic struck.
“I don’t know what to say,” one professor wrote her in an email when he heard the news.
In the immediate aftermath, Portes worries more about burning through her savings to pay rent after her roommate moved out of her two-bedroom apartment.
After that, she wants to “keep fighting” for her degree.
“I don’t know how I’m going do it, but I’m going to have to,” Portes said.
A short 30-minute drive from Disney World, UCF has nearly 1,000 students enrolled through Disney Aspire this semester.
For those losing their jobs, spokesman Chad Binette encouraged them to contact the Office of Student Financial Assistance.
“Students can speak with a financial aid counselor either in person or virtually about additional resources that may be available to help them,” Binette said, adding, “UCF is committed to helping all of our students achieve their educational goals.”
For instance, UCF has run the UCF Knight Success Grant that quietly gives out money to college seniors who are 18 or less credits from finishing their degrees but have run out of money.
And it’s also not too late for laid-off Disney workers to apply for FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, for this school year, said Valencia College spokeswoman Carol Traynor.
“If students file now, they may be eligible for federal financial aid, including Pell grants and federal loans,” said Traynor, adding about 1,611 Disney Aspire students are currently enrolled in Valencia classes for college credit.
Another resource for Orange County-only residents is CareerSource Central Florida, which is helping pay tuition and books for tourism workers and others who lost work during the pandemic in addition to assisting them with resumes, internships and other career-building through the “Help Is Here” program. The program has slots for 4,000 people, 1,000 are already enrolled and the agency has received more than 3,000 applications.
And if laid-off Disney workers want to pay their own through Disney Aspire, they are offered a tuition discount or can transfer schools, Finger said in a statement.
Guild Education, the Denver company that administers Disney Aspire, declined to say how much the tuition discount is through its spokeswoman Gwendolyn Keefe.
‘SHOULD WE HAVE HOPE?’
Amber Stofferahn’s life was whirlwind. Up until the pandemic, she worked part-time as a server at Hollywood Studios and was a mother of six children. Then she added another title: Student.
Through Disney Aspire, Stofferahn, 33, was studying psychology online at Wilmington University in pursuit of her goal to become a school counselor.
More than a decade earlier, she dropped out of college when she started her family and began working. In her 30s, Disney Aspire suddenly made her refocus on her education after it had been on the back burner.
“It was just one of those things where I said to myself, ‘It’s now or never,’” Stofferahn said.
With 20 credits left to finish, Stofferahn called the uncertainty “devastating” as she prepares to be laid off.
Stofferahn finishes her homework this semester as she wonders how she will pay for the next one. Can her family afford it? Union employees, like Stofferahn, may get recalled when Disney needs them, but how long will that take? Two years? Or more? If she pauses her education for that long, will she lose all her momentum?
“Should we have hope? Should we hang on?” Stofferahn said. “Should we continue to be motivated and excited and trust that in time things will get better again, the way they used to be? Or is all of that really for nothing because it’s not going to go back to normal.”