Take Cobwebs Off Employee Tuition Assistance Policies

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Dec. 5 — Tuition assistance can help employers hold on to employees and improve their skills, but the programs must be designed properly, consultants say.

“Tuition assistance benefits, like student loan assistance, college coaching for families, and college savings assistance, are part of benefits that employers offer to assist employees with the cost of higher and ongoing education,” Betsy Dill, senior partner and financial wellness advisory leader at Mercer LLC’s Los Angeles office, told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail Dec. 5. “Tuition assistance addresses the cost of additional education, training and certifications that may be required on the job.”

Two factors are driving employers’ tuition assistance and reimbursement programs, Jonathan Corke, senior director of enterprise solutions and partnerships at EdAssist, said Nov. 30 during a Chief Learning Officer magazine webinar. These factors are the tight labor market and the need to improve employee skills, he said.

Employers should decide whether they will pay employees directly to reimburse them for tuition expenses or follow the “emerging trend” of paying the school directly, said Mark Ward, vice president and general manager of tuition management company EdAssist. Paying schools directly avoids the problem of employees waiting for their reimbursement, he said.

The policy design of many employers’ tuition assistance programs needs an overhaul because they may be outdated, making the explanatory documents very dry and “not employee facing,” Ward said.

Employers should ask themselves what they are “trying to accomplish,” he said. They need to be clear on both program goals, such as how much money will be spent, and company goals such as improving employee retention.

The policy “has to be user-friendly,” clear and concise, said Tracy Beard, head of tuition administration at EdAssist. Goals and deadlines should be clear to users, she said.

Tuition assistance programs need to be marketed to prospective employees to distinguish the organization from its competitors, Corke and Ward said. Compliance systems need to be in place to make sure the program is administered properly and guard against occasional fraud, Beard said.

These systems protect employees too, Corke said.

Less obvious perhaps is that “academic guidance is essential to success for adult learners,” as Beard said. Employees need advice that is in line with the company’s goals in funding their tuition, she said.

A third-party administrator can provide crucial help to the employer, Dill said, “not simply the help with validating expenses, and facilitating payment—though better compliance and reduction in administrative costs are a benefit. A third-party administrator can also work with the employer and employee to ensure that the higher ed/technical training institution, curriculum and course selection lead to the desired results,” as well as data analytics and benchmarking to support strategizing and decision-making.

EdAssist is part of Watertown, Mass.-based Bright Horizons, a provider of education and child care services.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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