Modern Tuition Assistance: How to Get Employees to Continue Learning

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It's not just about the money.

That's one of the takeaways of a recent webinar discussion I had on CLO with EdAssist's Mark Ward and Tracy Beard about maximizing the efficacy of today's modern tuition assistance programs.

How much you cap your programs is one aspect: how you design them is another.

"We know the huge impact of tuition assistance on business," Mark told me during the discussion. "The important thing now is, how easy is it to use?"

Designing a Modern Tuition Assistance Program

Employers may have historically focused on how much money is offered for employees to continue their education (and of course, that matters, too). But increasingly, as we discussed, how you offer it matters just as much.

In fact, key considerations of a high-functioning tuition program have to include things like strategic payment plans - how classes are billed and payed for. It may come as a surprise, but how employees pay - whether the employer pays schools directly, enables the employee to pay after reimbursement, or requires people to put down a lot of their own money up front - can dramatically impact usage.

Conventional policies that default to the latter (large amounts of an employee's own money) can hamstring the most well-intentioned programs. That's especially true today when people are already carrying substantial amounts of educational debt. Absent employees' own resources to front the bill, you're cutting into the very purpose of a modern tuition assistance program - to help employees build the skills you need.

Modern Programs for a Modern Era

Why do some tuition assistance programs lack these employee-friendly features? As Mark observed, many policies trace their roots back to the era of the post-WWII GI bill, when tuition assistance was a tax-advantaged benefit that had not been fully blended into HR's broader learning and development and retention plans.

Conventional policy components (lengthy waiting periods, degree-only programs, and reimbursements that take weeks - sometimes months - to process) were created during a period when many employers were trying to limit the new benefit's usage. Now, many employers are looking for ways to engage their high-potential employees; they want vehicles that encourage workers to gain new skills and strengthen existing ones. In today's labor environment, many industries are paying more to recruit qualified candidates and still taking longer to fill needed roles. With that in mind, Mark wonders if you really want employees waiting 12 months before they can use the benefit. "That's really an old way of thinking," he said.

It's a sign that many tuition programs warrant refreshing. Or as Bloomberg recently advised, "Take Cobwebs Off Employee Tuition Assistance Policies."

"Tuition assistance can help employers hold on to employees and improve their skills," read the article, "but the programs must be designed properly."

We couldn't agree more.

Watch the full webinar here.

Written by: Jonathan Corke

About the Author

Jonathan Corke at Bright Horizons

As Senior Director, Product Marketing, Jonathan has spent the last decade working at the intersection of strategic HR and enterprise technology. He has learned a great deal about converting a talent management strategy into an operating plan through direct conversations with HR leaders and numerous industry surveys. These experiences have sparked a fascination with how leading employers create a better environment for their workforce, and how that environment drives consistent business performance. Jonathan holds an MBA from Clark University.