What it Will Take for Tuition Programs to Really Make a Difference

Young professional discussing a tuition assistance program with her manager

Employers have job openings; new hires aren’t plentiful enough to fill them. Not surprisingly, tuition assistance is moving center stage as a solution.

“Many companies are feeling urgency about hiring skilled workers amid low unemployment,” wrote Inside Higher Ed recently. “As a result, some employers are getting more serious about using tuition reimbursement and other subsidies to help train and retain their employees.” 

Skeptics, however, remain. The Insider Higher Ed report yielded much in the comments section, with readers sounding off on their doubts about tuition assistance, and why programs hit a wall. Each of those doubts is based on a specific concern (below); a well-managed program can answer every one.

Beyond Employee Benefits

“In my experience, the weak link in this entire process is that most employers treat tuition assistance simply as an employee benefit rather than something baked-in to employee development, career planning, and the achievement of organizational goals.”  

It’s true that many programs exist as merely benefits offerings and not strategies. But that’s a failure of enactment, not concept. Forward-thinking employers are indeed integrating tuition assistance into employee development, from the assessment of an employer’s individual challenges and goals, to the carefully created educational and career pathways to reach them. When the program launches, it’s geared to align employees’ ambitions and employer goals, so everybody gets what they want.

Improving Usage

“What's striking are the low utilization rates and how poorly run most are: Many employers have no idea whether the programs produce the desired (or any) results and don't even attempt to measure outcomes.” 

The key phrase here is “poorly run.” Well-designed programs have built in mechanisms that promote usage. They also measure and re-measure over time to gauge progress and adjust where necessary. And guess what – they attract employee participation. As our SVP Patrick Donovan told Inside Higher Ed, our programs can see 30 percent increases in the number of people signing on.

Removing Barriers

“In my experience, the barrier for potential students is time. Most employers are not providing work time for studies, so the student has to come up with the time on her or his own.” 

Sure, time is one of a learner-and-earner’s biggest hurdles. But a well-crafted program solves for that, too. Our educational advisors work with students to unearth credits already earned – through life experience, previous college courses, or test-out options. And fewer credits equals less time. A bonus: by shrinking the number of required credits advising also takes on another big obstacle – money.

Beyond Degrees

“I believe certificates are more palatable and would enroll more people.” 

We won’t argue -- certificates are great ways to get skills in a hurry. But can they always do it alone? Nope. Some roles may require the depth of knowledge only a degree can deliver. But degree programs can’t always pivot quickly with today’s needs. It’s why we encourage all employers to think beyond degrees and expand their tuition rules to include all of today’s formats: degrees, certificates, boot camps, and certifications. 

Here’s one last thing we know. A well-designed program takes on the two biggest reasons to offer tuition assistance – recruitment and retention. Consider this comment from an employee: “I would take tuition assistance in a heartbeat.” We couldn’t have said it better than that.

Young professional learning new computer skills

The State of Education Benefits Report

The New Benchmarks for Tuition Assistance and Student Loan Programs

Written by: Alan Robins

June 6, 2019

About the Author

Alan Robins at Bright Horizons

As Director of Product Marketing, Alan drives original research and thought leadership for Bright Horizons education benefits programs, drawing on his extensive experience helping companies optimize education programs to support their Talent and HR objectives. Prior to Bright Horizons, Alan was at Gartner, a global leader in providing advisory services to technology and business executives, where he led new product teams in Europe and the US.