Taking Advantage of Your Employer’s Education Benefits A Guide to Employer-Provided Tuition Assistance for Nontraditional Students

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D.W. Bobst Founder and CEO, TrendHR View Bio
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Shelley Zansler View Bio

Many people go to college because the education can help them get a job, but learning doesn’t have to stop after people are established in their careers. Working adults may want to go back to school to advance or diversify their job-related skills, work toward a higher-paying position or for personal fulfillment. However, attending school while maintaining a career can be challenging. Fortunately, employers increasingly understand that their employees aren’t the only ones who benefit from increased education — their companies do, too.

Because of the mutual benefits of having well-educated employees, many workplaces offer tuition assistance to make going back to school more feasible. The Society for Human Resource Management’s 2017 Employee Benefits Survey found that around 50 percent of employers offer some form of assistance for undergraduate degrees and 53 percent for graduate degrees. This is actually a decrease in educational benefit offerings from the previous five years, but more recent pushes to improve educational benefit offerings by large companies like Discover and Walmart may indicate a trend toward focusing on education as an important employee benefit.

Employer Education Benefits Explained

Employers are increasingly aware that providing good benefits can be the key to attracting and retaining high-caliber employees, but premium benefit packages can cost employers a lot of money. Tuition assistance has become a popular employer benefit because it’s not only a perk that many workers highly value, but the results can end up outweighing the initial costs of providing education assistance. “It’s becoming more common to see employers reimbursing employees for their student loans or paying for their current education. Companies are starting to see the value it will bring by furthering education and helping employees move forward,” says D.W. Bobst, founder and CEO of TrendHR. “This also gives employees an incentive to stay with the company long term.”

When employers help their employees further their educations, they are making an investment in their workers. Those who go back to school to advance their educations may become more qualified in their field, which can yield higher earnings for both the individual and the business. Even when employees go to college to explore subjects unrelated to their work, employers can still benefit from having satisfied, well-rounded employees who appreciate that their workplace invests in their personal enrichment and quality of life. “In this market, retaining current talent is equally important to attracting new talent. Education benefits assist with both.”

Employers may offer education benefits in a few different ways. The most common are tuition reimbursement, tuition assistance and employer-sponsored scholarships.

With tuition reimbursement, employees pay the up-front cost of tuition, and their employers pay them back. Some employers reimburse their employees after each year of schooling, and others only reimburse upon program completion. “As in any benefit, the employer wants the employee to do the up-front work to get the benefit,” notes Bobst. “For example, the employee needs to enroll in the benefit, fill out paperwork, pay the tuition upfront and then be reimbursed a portion or the whole tuition depending on the company.”

The amount of tuition covered often has a yearly limit. If the amount reimbursed is $5,250 or less, the benefit is not considered income, and the employee doesn’t have to pay taxes on it. However, if an employer reimburses an employee for more than that amount, any benefit exceeding $5,250 would be taxed. Because of this tax arrangements, it’s common for employers to cap their education benefits at or below $5,250. To cover costs exceeding their employer’s specified reimbursement amount, students can and should apply for federal financial aid. When applying for aid, students must notify their school of the amount of their employer-provided tuition assistance, as this may affect the amount of institutional and federal aid the student can receive. Students who can’t pay for school upfront can talk with their school about making incremental payments through a payment plan or see if their school will allow them to hold off on payment until they receive the tuition reimbursement from their employer.

Employer-provided tuition assistance programs are often very similar to tuition reimbursement arrangements, except that tuition assistance programs generally provide aid upfront. This means the amount employees have to pay upfront for their education can be greatly reduced or eliminated entirely.

This form of aid is pretty straightforward. Some workplaces offer scholarships to employees and, sometimes, their family members. While scholarships don’t necessarily fall under the employment benefit umbrella because they aren’t inherently available to all employees, they are still a useful form of aid employers may provide in lieu of or in conjunction with other education benefits. Scholarships may be limited in quantity, and employees may need to apply for them each academic year.

Employer education benefits often have stipulations employees must meet. “Employers put this in place to ensure their investment is used wisely, and in some way contributes back to the business,” says Bobst. Common requisites include:

  • GPA minimum. Employers often want their employees to make good grades to receive the benefit. Bobst notes that most require employers to get B or better grades for reimbursement.

  • Choosing an approved course of study or making sure to take employer-specified courses. Some benefit programs only apply to specific courses of study, generally related to the work done at a given company.

  • Attending an approved or partner school. Companies can make the most of their education benefits by partnering with certain schools, so it’s good to check if employees must choose from a select list of colleges.

  • Employment tenure. While some companies allow employees to take advantage of their education benefits right away, others require employees to work at the company for a specified length of time, first.

  • Employment commitment. Some employees must agree to work for the company for a certain length of time after receiving their education benefits or completing their education programs.

Bobst says that the conditions a company has in place are usually fairly easy to meet and should not deter prospective students from taking advantage of the aid. “Some personal time spent on doing the work should never be a detriment to trying to get some ‘free money,’” he says. “Not many employers do this, and it is an incredible benefit.”

Bobst also points out that finding out about employer-provided education benefits shouldn’t be difficult, because it’s an excellent opportunity for companies to appeal to prospective employees and advertise their company’s culture. “Employers that have unusual and great benefits should want candidates to know.” If the information isn’t readily available on the company’s website, Bobst recommends bringing up benefits during the interview or get information from appropriate sources in the office.

“Reach out to your manager or an HR representative. If it’s during the interview, don’t be shy; bring it up!”

If their workplace doesn’t have an established employee education program, employees can always ask to see if their employer would be willing to provide some sort of funding. These benefits can be invaluable to employee and employer alike, so it doesn’t hurt to ask. “If an employer does not have anything formal in place do not be discouraged, just ask, if that benefit is important to you,” says Bobst. “Maybe they will make an exception if they really want to hire you.” He continues by citing an instance when an employee successfully gained employer funding without a formal program in place: “We assisted an employee recently with an offer for a new employer — she was able to receive an education bonus as part of her offer. The education assistance is what solidified her acceptance of the job.”

Companies That Promote Continuing Education for Employees

  • Discover

    Discover’s education assistance program consists of three plans to fit various student needs. The company’s Discover College Commitment program, which launched in June 2018, offers employees full coverage of tuition, fees and supplies. Employees can choose from seven online bachelor’s degree programs from three partnering universities: Wilmington University, Brandman University and University of Florida. Discover also has their In-Network Degree Assistance program, which reimburses students for 90 percent of annual tuition costs up to $5,250 for associate and bachelor’s degrees and up to $10,000 for master’s degrees for students who attend schools within the Guild Education University Network. Additionally, In-Network students can also opt for tuition deferment, which allows them to pay only 10 percent of tuition costs at the end of each term.

    The Out-of-Network Degree Assistance program is for students who want to attend accredited schools outside of the Guild Education University Network. To qualify for 90 percent tuition reimbursement, students’ field of study must be related to business or their current or future job roles. Provided annual aid caps at $2,500 for associate degrees, $5,250 for bachelor’s degrees and $10,000 for master’s degrees. Discover employees can take advantage of education benefits as soon as they gain employment.

  • Walmart

    Walmart’s recent boost to their education assistance program gives employees the opportunity to earn an online associate or bachelor’s degree from one of three partnering universities: University of Florida, Brandman University and Bellevue University. While program offerings are limited to studies in business and supply chain management, all employees who apply to school will be accepted, and the upfront costs of attending are heavily reduced. Students are only required to pay $1 per day to help fund their educations. Beyond that, Walmart will cover the rest of tuition along with books, supplies and other fees, which means employees can avoid taking out student loans. The benefit is available to all employees who have worked with the company for at least 90 days.

  • Starbucks

    Starbucks is partnered with Arizona State University to provide full- and part-time employees with cost-free online bachelor’s degrees. Arizona State is known for its innovation in online learning and offers an extensive range of degree programs from which Starbucks employees can choose. Employees can even apply to ASU for free through the Starbucks employee application portal. Employees must have worked at Starbucks for around three months at 20 hours per week to be eligible for education benefits. Tuition reimbursements are automatically added to students’ paychecks.

  • Ford

    Ford Motors provides tuition assistance to full-time employees who are members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) Union and have worked with the company for at least three months. Ford and the UAW prepay employee tuition up to $6,000 per year for programs at regionally accredited institutions. Employees can pursue associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as Ph.D.s and approved certificate and diploma programs. Ford also offers textbook reimbursement of up to $400 of the $6,000 annual benefit.

  • UPS

    UPS’s education assistance program caters specifically to its part-time employees because, as the company notes, most of their employees started out at part-time workers. In other words, UPS encourages part-time employees to grow with the company by investing in their educations and training them to take on advanced positions. Employees can receive $5,250 in aid per year for up to $25,000. Plus, employees can receive benefits as soon as they get hired, and benefits are prorated in case employees are already in school at the time they’re hired.

  • P&G

    Those who work for P&G can receive up to 80 percent reimbursement on tuition and fees when pursuing education programs that relate to their current or future positions and roles within the company. Employees can receive up to $40,000 in reimbursement aid. Because study must be field-related, prospective students will need to get all courses and fees preapproved before receiving aid.

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