How to Get ROI from Your Employee Education Assistance Program? Stop Asking the Same Old Questions

education assistance advising

One of the first questions employers often ask when considering an employee education assistance program is, how much per employee they should reimburse. On paper, it seems like a reasonable question. The more you reimburse, the easier it will be for employees to advance their education, right?

Not necessarily. While tuition caps are important, they're certainly not the whole story. Exactly how you fund your program (among other factors) is often more important than how much.

That's just one of the surprising findings from a new tuition-program study we presented at our recent conference in New York. In a survey of 700 HR decision-makers, we set out to learn what makes a successful education benefit. What we found was a clear alignment between employers who report strong ROI from their tuition programs, and some very specific elements of their approach.

What features do these successful programs have in common?

Payment method over money

Higher reimbursement amounts don't always translate to more success. That's because tuition plans often require employees to shell out large amounts of their own money and then wait months to be reimbursed -- something many people can't afford. Successful programs have figured out that removing employees from the payment equation (paying schools directly or paying tuition up front) generates more participation, even at a lower cap. In short, these higher performing programs are not paying more -- they're paying smarter.

Careful alignment with talent needs

High-performing programs know what they want to achieve. And 84% of them craft specific education offerings -- defined pathways, higher caps for identified skills, etc. -- to deliver on those goals. At Bright Horizons, that's translated to our Early Education Degree Achievement Program that pays full tuition for teachers -- the positions we need to fill most. For participants, it has the double-sided benefit of removing the money issue while providing confidence that the time they spend learning will be for skills their employer needs.

Strategic partnerships

High-performing programs effectively tap the important element of outside expertise. How? More than three quarters (80%) very purposefully partner with schools to offer employee tuition discounts. Such partnerships also direct employees to programs offering the right skills, on the right schedule, at the right price. And that keeps costs down while upping the odds of successful completion.

Rethinking the Way Your Approach Your Employee Education Assistance Program

The above elements make up part of a longer list that collectively shows we need to change how we assemble these programs. Annual caps and eligibility rules -- the classic benchmarks that drive decisions of what we call "passive" programs -- turn out to have little bearing on whether a program delivers ROI. Programs with the above characteristics -- what we call agile programs -- are able to both respond to today's talent targets and adjust as the target moves.

And these agile programs have something else in common -- regular measurements and achievement in talent goals including recruitment, retention, promotion, and performance. One client is seeing a 93% retention rate for tuition program participants, compared to 59% for their general employee population. Another has reduced call center turnover to roughly half the national average. Our own teacher tuition program's progress toward recruitment goals can be measured in the more than 1,000 inquiries it's received in the few months since introduction.

The message is not to get bogged down with inconsequential benchmarks. Get the ROI you need out of your education programs by taking a closer look at what you are measuring and the methods you use to pay out your tuition investments.  If you remove financial barriers for your employees, their participation -- and your impact -- will skyrocket.

Written by: Patrick Donovan

About the Author

Patrick Donovan Bright Horizons

A member of Bright Horizons’ Executive Team, Patrick has overall responsibility for EdAssist and College Coach. Patrick and his teams are dedicated to enabling superior performance for clients and their employees through better education while also reducing stress through better financial wellness. Patrick believes that our job is to unlock human potential and is passionate about how we positively change lives here at Bright Horizons.