It's not an uncommon problem. As business and governmental organizations strive to prepare their workforces of today for the challenges of tomorrow, they collectively spend more than $6 billion on employee tuition-reimbursement programs.
Too often, however, traditional approaches to tuition reimbursement lead to one of two problems. First, employers that pay for any job-related courses often wind up paying too much for coursework that in the end has little relevancy to the organization's development. And second, in the name of economy, some organizations require extensive and elaborate prejustifications and preapprovals for every single course for each and every employee. While such a process cuts back on program costs, it also sends the message that the organization is more interested in short-term costs rather than long-term development of the employee or the organization.
The solution to this dichotomy is better managing, rather than enlarging or restricting, reimbursement programs. As Union County's HR staff discovered, a middle ground exists between the "anything goes" approach on one hand, and the "only what we say" approach on the other. The faculty at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, worked with Hardoby and his staff at the county to create a customized certificate program that combines employer guidance with employee flexibility. Other organizations struggling with reaching a balance also may find such a program helpful.
The county creates its own program.
The primary focus when we began working with Hardoby was to define suitable coursework for the county's management-level employees. We decided the best solution would be the creation of a graduate-level Certificate in Public Management program, in affiliation with Kean University.
The program meets all the county's needs. It requires employees to successfully complete two employer-chosen foundation courses-the graduate-level Public Bureaucracy: People, Processes and Performance and Policy, Politics and Public Management. These two courses formed the building blocks of a graduate-level course of study and ensure county employees learn the solid basics of public management.
But to allow for individualization, employees also get to choose any two elective courses of their own from Kean's accredited master's in public administration (MPA) curriculum. This way they can pursue a line of study that interests them on a personal level.
The certificate program is administered just like other Kean courses of study. The Union County employees take all their classes right alongside other Kean students. Union County covers half the class tuition costs for each employee.
The certificate program has been highly successful for the county. By linking it with the public administration program at the college, the county has assuaged any concerns as to its relevancy and value. At the same time, the certificate program offers a wide enough range of courses to meet a variety of employee and employer needs and desires.
A second benefit of the certificate program is that the credits earned by participants are applicable to employees continuing on with their MPA degrees, should they wish to do so. To date, of the 26 county employees who completed the certificate program, 24 have elected to go on to earn master's degrees. The county pays 75 percent of tuition for degree units 13 through 30 and 100 percent for units 31 to completion. "It's the best of both worlds, for us and for our people" says Hardoby.
Janis Lisa, director of the Division of Internal Audits for the county, agrees. "The program ... has helped me to develop a good understanding of how the governmental sector works and how to make it work better. This program should be considered a mandatory tool in developing the skills needed to perform productively in government." The program has proved so beneficial that the county board of Freeholders has just begun a second, undergraduate-level Certificate in Public Administration program with Kean for employees who lack a four-year degree.
Like the graduate program, employees will take a total of four courses, two employer-selected foundation courses and two employee-selected electives, all of which can later be used toward a baccalaureate degree. The county currently has eight employees working on undergraduate certificates.
"With our undergraduate program, we'll be able to reach out to employees at all levels within the county, not just those in the professional and management ranks," says Hardoby. "Union County is committed to providing our citizens with the best possible services, a big job for which we require the best-prepared employees."
What to remember when shopping for a degree program.
Other organizations can copy Union County's successful experience by keeping a few tips in mind. First, certificate programs should be linked to a college's existing degree programs. This helps ensure that the courses taken are relevant to the employee's occupational needs: An employee who wants to continue on a degree path has already completed the basics, and the linkage of credits to specific degrees helps direct employees away from courses that are interesting but not relevant to the employer.
Also, certificate programs may be framed not just as a training opportunity, but as a stepping stone for a return to academics for many adult learners-gently starting off those who are able, and signaling to those who are not quite ready, prior to launching an extensive and costly degree-program effort.
Finally, when establishing a certificate program, an employer should bargain with the school over reduced tuition rates for its participants. If an organization has enough employees enrolled (equivalent to fill a full class, which would be a total of 10 to 12 graduate students or 15 to 20 undergraduate students), the employer should look to negotiate a reduction of between 5 percent and 15 percent.
Using customized certificate programs, employers are able to create high-value educational opportunities. Such programs can be created in any field relevant to the organization and its work needs, from public management in the case of Union County, to more specialized areas such as accounting, engineering, computer programming and more. Certificate programs can be tailored to employees of all levels and backgrounds and start from entry-level courses to up through graduate-level coursework.
Certificate programs also work well with college courses using distance learning and other alternative learning strategies that can accommodate employees who travel or have unique working conditions.
These programs also can be valuable indicators to management when reviewing employees for transfers or promotions.
Creating and maintaining one or more certificate programs puts employers back in the position of managing their education programs, not just administering them. It offers an employee-friendly, but results-oriented system for directing today's employees toward the long-term growth and development they, and their employers, need to meet the dynamic workplace needs of tomorrow.
Workforce, May 1998, Vol. 77, No. 5, pp.101-104.