LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Walmart Stores Inc. announced a program Thursday in which its workers can receive college credit from the online American Public University and receive a tuition discount from the school.

The company also said it will commit $50 million over three years to help workers pay for books and tuition above the reduced tuition rate. After the reduction, tuition will cost $212.50 per undergraduate credit hour and $255 for graduate credits.

Walmart Chief Administrative Officer Tom Mars said the program grew out of a larger commitment to cultivate talent within the company. The plan is open to domestic workers at Walmart and Sam’s Club stores.

“We wanted to create a new way of thinking about what we call associate opportunity,” Mars said.

Alicia Ledlie, Walmart senior director for associate development, said nearly three-quarters of Walmart workers contacted in a survey said they preferred online study to attending a local college.

Ledlie said Walmart looked at 81 colleges, including brick-and-mortar schools, and found American Public University, based in Charles Town, W.Va., to be the best fit.

Walmart workers receive job training in areas ranging from ethics to retail inventory management, for which they can receive credit, she said.

Sara Martinez Tucker, a former U.S. undersecretary of education who is on Walmart’s external advisory council, said Walmart would have had to form a tremendous coalition of schools to offer a similar program through local community colleges and universities.

Tucker said it is helpful to employees because they don’t have to apply for reimbursement from their employer.

Students won’t have to pay for credits awarded based on their training.

American Public University, with 70,000 students, offers more than 100 certificate and degree programs.

The credit for training can be applied mainly to business- and retail-related courses. Walmart said the school will have evaluated for credit jobs held by 70 percent of Walmart workers by 2012. That covers about 1 million workers.

Walmart also offers scholarships through its foundation and offers assistance to workers seeking GEDs.

Walmart executives said the link with the school will help workers attain better jobs both inside and outside the company.