Lorraine Llauger, an organizer at Orlando, Fla., Local 606, and Todd Bedard, president of Manchester, N.H., Local 2320, are earning associate degrees in business management at zero cost to themselves through the Union Plus Free College Program.

With just four or five classes to go, Todd Bedard is on the verge of having an associate degree in business management – without accruing a penny of student debt.

Bedard, the president of Manchester, N.H., Local 2320, is making the most of the Union Plus Free College Program, which covers tuition and online course materials for active and retired union members and their families.

“I haven’t taken a dime out of my pocket. I haven’t opened my wallet; I haven’t given a credit card number,” he said. “I just filled out the financial aid paperwork. I thought it was going to be painful, but I think it only took about a half hour.”

An equipment installer for Consolidated Communications, Bedard previously earned an associate degree in applied science for telecommunications when he worked for Verizon. His program now, through Eastern Gateway Community College, has the potential to open all kinds of doors.

“I have 21 years doing what I’ve been doing, and I want to see where a business degree can take me in the future,” he said, adding that he may pursue a four-year college degree and possibly an MBA.

At age 47, it’s not something he would have considered if he hadn’t heard about the program, which marshals all available federal aid and grants on behalf of students, then fills any funding gaps the aid doesn’t cover.

Union Plus, in partnership with AFSCME, rolled out the benefit in 2018 with online associate degree and certificate programs, and is working to offer a bachelor’s degree by the end of 2019. Fields of study include advertising, cyber security, finance, hospitality, labor studies, marketing, criminal justice, teacher education and office management.

Bedard is an evangelist when it comes to urging Local 2320 brothers and sisters to enroll. “I’m annoying about it,” he said with a laugh. “I tell everyone who will listen: If you’re not doing it, you’re losing money.”

In Florida, journeyman inside wireman Lorraine Llauger is another IBEW member singing the program’s praises.

Never expecting to be able to go to college before learning about the Union Plus benefit, Lorraine Llauger of Orlando Local 606 now enjoys family study sessions with her middle-school children.

“I never thought I’d be going to college,” said Llauger, an organizer at Orlando Local 606. “I thought, where am I going to find the time? I can’t go off to a campus.”

Llauger’s coursework focuses on labor studies, knowledge she is excited to share to educate current IBEW members and organize new ones. One of her ideas is a short class on labor history.

“I want to remind our members about the hard work it took to get us where we are today, and why it’s important to never forget your roots and to always fight for your rights,” she said.

Llauger didn’t hesitate when she got wind of the program. “I jumped right on it,” she said. “I wanted to be the guinea pig. I wanted to be one of the first people trying it out – to find out if it was too good to be true. It’s not. It really is that good.”

The flexibility of online learning allows her and Bedard to take full advantage of their free education. Classes fit their schedules, and there’s no tiring commutes to and from school.

“My favorite thing is that I can be anywhere where there is internet,” Llauger said.. “The classes are broken down so they don’t give you too much work at one time. You’re not overloaded and you can go at your own pace, but you still have to be responsible and do the work.”

A single mother, Llauger enjoys studying alongside her son and daughter as they do their middle-school homework. She loves knowing that they’re proud to tell friends that their mom’s in college.

Bedard squeezes in study time around family activities on evenings and weekends, and he doesn’t waste a minute during the workday.

“There are times when I have to plug in my work computer to do an upgrade and there’s 10, 15 minutes where I have to sit and let that happen,” he said. “Or I’m on the phone, on hold. And during my breaks.”

At those moments, he fires up his personal laptop to study, take quizzes and post questions and answers on student discussion boards. While that’s an obligatory part of the program, he said he gets a lot out of it. “I’m talking to people all around the country, many of them union members, and we’re able to share our life experiences.”

When Bedard learned of the benefit, his reaction was like Llauger’s – recognizing right away it could be life-changing for him and other union sisters and brothers, if it lived up to its promise.

“As president, I wanted to be able to talk to my members about it firsthand,” he said. “I signed up within a day or so and haven’t looked back.”

To learn more about the free college program and how to apply, go to www.unionplusfreecollege.org or call (888) 590-9009.