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Debating Tuition-reimbursement Programs

February 1, 1997
Related Topics: Career Development, Benefit Design and Communication, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
Kelley Bacon, recruitment and training manager, Mesa County Government, Grand Junction, Colorado, says:
"Two years ago, the Mesa County Board of County Commissioners adopted a training and development policy that included tuition assistance. The county wants its employees to continue striving for the highest degree of expertise and professionalism.

"The tuition-assistance program has been utilized by employees at all levels. HR provided assistance for associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Most of our department directors now have master’s level degrees, and our professionals have bachelor’s degrees. The majority of degrees have been in business administration and accounting or human resources management—with a few in psychology. Seven individuals have received their master’s degree in public administration.

"Our tuition-reimbursement policy provides an 80 percent reimbursement for full-time employees with a $3,000 annual cap and a 60 percent reimbursement for part-time employees with a $2,500 annual cap. The individual must be enrolled in an accredited institution. Employees must have a minimum of one full year of employment with Mesa County and have acceptable ratings on current performance appraisals. Each course must be approved and substantiated by the department/division director or elected official with a statement explaining job relatedness and the benefit to Mesa County. The employee can apply by completing a tuition- assistance form and forwarding it to the training technician in personnel. The technician reviews the form to ensure that all documentation is attached and then turns the forms in on a monthly or as-needed basis to the training and development team for approval. This team is represented by employees in various areas and levels of the organization. Once tuition assessment has met all criteria, reimbursement is made. We don’t provide financial support for fees or books. Moreover, tuition is available on a first-come, first-served basis, subject to budget appropriations. I currently have budgeted $32,000 for requests.

"[Human resources] didn’t want this policy to be any kind of entitlement that would guarantee reimbursement for degrees. So we’ve really emphasized that this program will reimburse on a course-by-course basis for education that will be of benefit to Mesa County and its citizens. The program criteria are working very well. We still have some employees who believe that their non-work-related electives should be covered, but for the most part, everyone submits what he or she knows will comply.

We believe any type of training or employee development will help our workforce improve performance and productivity. Our commitment also shows the value we place on our employees. This goes a long way in improving employee morale. Expectations for employee performance are very high in local government. I believe that Mesa County meets those challenges because of our commitment [in HR] to training and education."

Janice M. Stauffer, personnel administrator, MagiKitch’n Inc., Quakertown, Pennsylvania, says:
"The educational assistance program at MagiKitch’n covers expenses for tuition registration and the cost of books required for the course. However, the employee is required to pay for the course. If proof of the grade ‘C’ or better is presented to the personnel department upon completion of the course, reimbursement is made to the employee. Books are purchased with company funds and then are donated to the company library after the course is completed.

"All courses must be taken outside regular working hours, unless the employee is requested to take the course by the company and there is no convenient course available after normal working hours."

Martin Bell, director, University of California, Irvine, Graduate School of Management, says:
In recent years, I have noticed fewer students receiving tuition assistance. Traditionally, tuition reimbursement was a mainstay of many corporate benefits programs. However, since budgets have tightened, tuition reimbursement is now viewed with a more discerning eye. The relevance of the curriculum, spiraling cost of education and long-term commitment of the employee are real issues to consider. One result has been a downward trend in both the number of employees reimbursed and the amount of reimbursement. These issues are tangential to the larger question of whether tuition reimbursement is an appropriate benefit at all. The answer is an unequivocal yes.

"For a relatively small investment, the rewards cycled back to the organization in the form of a more motivated and better educated employee are incalculable. The employee who has exposure to innovations in his or her field should yield a savings to the bottom line. Moreover, a strategically educated employee is a value added to the organization. Many educational institutions have retooled their programs to meet the changing demands of the business culture and have kept cost increases in check. At our Graduate School of Management, the program has woven two strategic foci into the MBA curriculum—international business and information technology. This positions our students to be at the cutting edge of the business environment and relevant in the workplace, which will benefit the return on investment.

"The issue is not whether tuition-reimbursement programs should continue, but how. Specifics such as the tuition amount [to be reimbursed], the school’s billing cycle, invoice handling, when grade reports are produced and turnaround time for reimbursement all need to be clearly understood up front. This provides for minimal frustration for all parties at the time the funds are needed."

Workforce, February 1997, Vol. 76, No. 2, pp. 85-86.

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