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Evaluating Employer Education Benefits

Evaluating Employer Education Benefits

Marlborough, MA, May 28, 2008

When your employer tells you that they offer education benefits, they might have quite a different picture in mind than you do. It's important to get the details before getting too excited about that particular perk in your compensation package.

The two most common kinds of education benefit programs offered by employers are Continuing Education and Tuition Reimbursement. We compare the two below, and provide examples of how they might show up in your organization.

Continuing Education

A company boasting a "Continuing Education" program typically will be willing to pay for more professional and industry development opportunities and not necessarily college tuition. This would include certificate and certification programs, and general training opportunities. Within certain industries, certificates and certifications can be equally or more valuable than a college degree. If you are in one of those industries (IT is a notable one), this may be your best bet to continue your education and fast track your career.

If you are not in one of those rare industries, you will need to be a bit savvier, think creatively and use this benefit to your advantage. Often you can use college courses towards certificates, and if you plan accordingly you can overlap those "certificate" courses with some of the requirements for your degree. The best way to go about finding ways to do this is to identify the certifications and certificates youÓ¤ be interested in, and then check into the local colleges and community colleges. Many of them offer certificate and certification training programs, and after a quick visit to a good academic advisor at the school, you may be well on your way to making the program work for both you and your employer.

Tuition Reimbursement

Companies offering Tuition Reimbursement programs are generally more college friendly, and these programs are typically much more lucrative than Continuing Education programs. When looking at a Tuition Reimbursement program, make sure you understand your employer's policies on the following:

  • What is the maximum annual reimbursement - Most employers will place a maximum on the amount they will reimburse an employee each year.
  • What is the lifetime or program maximum - Likewise, most employers will also place a maximum on the amount they will pay for an individual employee or degree.
  • Is there a commitment to the employer required - Often employers will want to require employees to stay with the organization for a designated period of time upon graduation (typically 1-2 years). If you were to graduate and leave before fulfilling your commitment, the employer would seek reimbursement for their investment in you. (Some states limit the employers ability to actually collect, and courts have not necessarily been employer friendly in the few cases that have gone to trial. However if you are considering leaving, you need to either plan on repaying the employer or seek legal counsel to better determine your liabilities.*)
  • Does the employer place any restriction on the type of education - Some employers will require you to attend an accredited university, some will require that you study within an industry or field the employer does business, some will require you to take classes or earn a degree qualifying you for a specific position.
  • When will you be eligible to participate in the plan - Some employers require employees to have worked for the company for a defined period of time before becoming eligible to participate in the program (typically 1 year).
  • Do you have to maintain a certain GPA or earn certain grades - Employers typically require employees to maintain a 3.0 GPA and/or earn a 'B' in the class to be eligible for reimbursement.

Keep in mind that tuition reimbursement programs vary in all of the above categories, and some are definitely more lucrative than others. To put some real numbers to the above, consider the following two examples:

Example #1: Paychex, Inc.

Paychex, a well-known Payroll and HR outsourcing company with 12,000+ employees, is a great example of a company offering both Continuing Education and Tuition Reimbursement programs. Their Tuition Reimbursement program offers employees up to $6,500 per year of employment in tuition reimbursement. Employees must earn a grade of a 'B' in the course to be eligible for full reimbursement, and a 'C' earns 50% reimbursement. There is no defined lifetime maximum and employees are eligible to begin classes starting day one of the first month after their employment start date.

While their Tuition Reimbursement program is relatively generous, their Continuing Education program is more modest. Although the opportunities are communicated to employees, their availability is not as defined. Every employee is eligible to join Toastmasters (a public speaking club that aids beginning speakers in developing presentation skills) at the organization's expense. Then, depending on your projected career track and your position, you can negotiate with your supervisor as to which other external opportunities the organization would pay for you to participate in. Although this might seems like a minimal offering, Paychex offers a wealth of educational opportunities for their employees, and they encourage their employees to make use of these internal resources.

Example #2: Eckerd Youth Alternatives, Inc.

Eckerd Youth Alternatives (EYA) is a non-profit organization with programs across the US, with currently about 1,400 employees. In 2007, EYA offered two types of education assistance: Tuition Reimbursement and a Graduate Program Option. For a non-profit company, both of these types of programs are considered generous. The Tuition Reimbursement program was available to most staff (except for corporate employees), and was capped at $1,000 - $1,200 annually (depending on the region you were in). Employees were required to get a 'B' in the class to be eligible for a 75% reimbursement, and every course had to be approved by the organization before you could take it. EYA required the degree you were seeking or the course you were taking be related to some career track within the organization.

The Graduate Program Option offered by EYA was a generous program limited to select employees only via an application process. EYA, in partnership with Plymouth State University, offered three graduate degree programs (MBA, M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and M.Ed. in Special Education) to their staff. Staff were required to commit to the organization for one year following graduation, and in exchange for the commitment the company paid 75% of tuition plus the initial testing and application fees. Both of these companies offered these educational benefits as both attraction and retention tools for employees. Keep this in mind the next time you are evaluating a potential employer's benefits, or considering taking advantage of your current employer's educational benefits program. They WANT to attract you as an employee, and they WANT to keep you once you come on board. So shop wisely, and put to good use what is offered.

* The information in this article is provided for general use only and should not be considered legal advice.

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