Employee Tuition Assistance Programs: The Perks and the Catch

by
Freelance Writer

When Vincent DeFalco was applying for positions in the finance industry as a new college grad, unlike many entry-level job seekers, he wasn’t solely interested in how much vacation time was offered. Instead, one of the main benefits he sought in a potential employer was whether it provided tuition assistance.  

Tuition assistance programs, perhaps one of the most underrated job perks, provide financial support to employees who want to take college courses while they continue to work. Usually a company will pay for a portion of tuition costs, but some rare gems, like Intel and Raytheon, will cover costs entirely.

Major companies that offer tuition reimbursement:

  • Apple 
  • AT&T 
  • Bank of America 
  • Boeing 
  • Best Buy 
  • Chevron
  • Deloitte
  • Disney 
  • Ford 
  • Gap 
  • Home Depot 
  • Intel 
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Starbucks
  • UPS
  • Verizon Wireless 
  • Wells Fargo 

DeFalco ended up working for State Street, a financial services heavyweight located in Boston. The company offers $10,000 each year to employees who wish to pursue further education. For DeFalco, the generous tuition assistance program was hard to resist.

“With the competitive landscape nowadays, I felt I needed an advanced degree to be successful,” he says. “But I wouldn’t have been able to get my M.B.A. without financial help.”

These days there’s a one-in-two chance that an employer offers some form of tuition reimbursement, according to a 2014 report from the Society for Human Resource Management. Fifty-four percent offer assistance for undergraduate courses, while 50% provide support for graduate school. And their average maximum reimbursement, $4,591, is no chump change.

Tuition assistance is a win-win for employees and employers, helping employers attract top talent and retain employees long-term. Meanwhile, such programs enable employees to advance their skills without pausing their career—or their paycheck—and to avoid the cumbersome debt typically associated with higher education.

Better still, even though employees essentially receive a paycheck for going to school, they don’t have to pay income tax on educational assistance in any amount up to $5,250 each year.

The catch

If you want to continue your education, cashing in on your company’s tuition assistance may sound like a no-brainer opportunity, but there are caveats.

Many employers require a certain grade average, such as a B or higher, in order to receive reimbursement. In addition, an employer may require the employee to stay at the company for a set amount of years after completing his or her degree. Hoping to pursue your dream of studying eighteenth century Chinese literature? Think again. Some companies require course work to be specifically related to their field. It’s also important to know that, prior to reimbursement, employees typically must pay tuition bills and associated costs up front.

To find out whether a current or potential employer offers tuition assistance, contact human resources, which generally administer such programs. But before jumping headlong into an astrophysics Ph.D. degree program with your company footing the bill, thoroughly examine the program policies and expectations.

Some questions to ask about tuition assistance programs include:

  • What kind of courses and programs are eligible?
  • Are expenses like books, travel, or other associated items covered?
  • How will I be reimbursed and when?
  • Is there a GPA requirement?
  • What happens if I fail a class or drop out?
  • What happens if I leave the company, whether by choice, a firing, or a layoff?
  • Am I required to stay with the company for a set amount of time after graduating?
  • Do I need to graduate within a certain time period?

Even with the most generous tuition assistance program, holding down a full-time job and going to school at night and on weekends is not for the faint of heart. But if you are able to juggle the demands, in today’s competitive job market, it’s unwise not to take advantage of an opportunity to pursue further education and keep working.

 “I think you would have to be crazy not to take advantage of tuition reimbursement,” says DeFalco. “It's given me more opportunities career-wise and was a great experience overall. I learned a ton of relevant information and gained valuable skills that have made me a much more well-rounded person, both inside and outside of the office.”

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