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Tina Byrnes spent years filing and photocopying as an office assistant for a Massachusetts General Hospital medical group. Now, armed with an associate’s degree and recently promoted to the front desk, she has her sights set on earning a bachelor’s and becoming a patient advocate.

Byrnes, 47, a mother of five, is one of the first Partners HealthCare employees to take advantage of the health care giant’s sweeping new initiative: to give its workers access to a free or nearly free college education.

The degrees, offered by a Southern New Hampshire University online program called College for America, cost $2,500 a year, which will largely be covered by the tuition reimbursement that Partners already offers, an average of $2,000 annually for full-time employees.

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Unlike the regular tuition arrangement, in which an employee could use up much of the annual reimbursement on a few community college classes, the new partnership offers a full degree, with the employee paying just a few hundred dollars each year.

Associate’s degrees in this program can typically be finished in 2½ years or less.

The degrees, tailored for working adults, are based not on lectures and tests but on independently mastering workplace-related skills, using such tools as charts and by interpreting medical terminology.

It’s the kind of competency-based education that proponents say gives blue-collar workers an affordable way to further their careers.

Partners estimates that thousands of nursing assistants, clerical workers, and other employees who have not been to college will have the opportunity to earn an online associate’s or bachelors’ degree. Any employee working 20 hours or more a week can enroll, although some of the company’s lowest-skilled workers, including immigrants on the cleaning crew, must take classes to improve their English and computer skills before they can participate.

Partners’ effort reflects a nationwide push to give lower-income workers a shot at the middle class. In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama called on businesses to offer more education to workers who have not gone to college, and the White House cited companies, including Partners, that are doing just that.

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Starbucks, for instance, recently said that it would pay full tuition for employees to finish the last two years of their bachelor’s degree, online, through Arizona State University.

But in general, fewer employers are offering tuition reimbursement than in the past, said Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a mystery why companies are cutting this perk, he said in an e-mail, because it “helps the employer through retention and by getting more educated workers.”

Currently, Partners pays several million dollars a year in tuition reimbursement and estimates that although the number of employees taking advantage of the program will grow with the new degree partnership, the price tag for the company will not because the flat rate and quicker pace of the program will keep costs low.

Forty-three Partners employees enrolled in a pilot program last year — about half in administrative or clerical roles — and more than 750 employees have inquired about the program since it was expanded companywide last month.

There is no promise of a raise or promotion for Partners employees who earn a degree, and no requirement to stay with the company afterward, but executives said earning a degree will give the workers an advantage.

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“There’s an understanding that they will hopefully be eligible for promotions or advancement,” said MJ Ryan, director of workforce development for Partners, the largest private employer in Massachusetts, with about 67,000 employees.

College for America, which was launched in 2013 at the accredited nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, is the first program of its kind to be approved for federal financial aid funding. It offers four degrees — an associate’s in general studies with a concentration in business or in nonclinical health care, or a bachelor’s in health care management or communication — primarily through employers.

About 75 companies have signed up so far, including McDonald’s and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, but the Partners commitment is the most substantial.

“What’s remarkable here is that the largest private employer in the state is making an accredited college degree available for $500 a year or less for any employee who wants it,” said Colin Van Ostern, chief marketing officer of College for America. “I’m not sure there is any precedent for that.”

As for Byrnes, the former MGH office assistant who earned her associate’s in one year, the ability to earn a degree and start down a new career path means she may be able to send her younger children to college and be in a better position to help patients.

“Now I feel like I can make a difference,” she said.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com.

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