Tuition Reimbursement: Your Employer Might Offer It but That Doesn’t Mean You Will Get It

Tuition Reimbursement: Your employer might offer it but that doesn't mean you will get it.

With the cost of higher education today, getting tuition reimbursement through an employer to pursue a college degree can certainly be beneficial. More than half of all employers are now estimated to offer some type of tuition reimbursement. However, just because a company offers the benefit of helping with college costs this doesn’t mean it is available to everyone.

Current and potential employers are frequently quick to point out their assistance with tuition reimbursement as a great benefit to the people that work for them. Yet, the truth with employer-provided tuition reimbursement is the support is regularly much more difficult to get than most employers will admit.

If you are interested in tuition reimbursement from a potential or current employer, there are some important questions to ask in order to establish the chances of getting the support. There are no guarantees from companies that claim to provide tuition reimbursement and often it comes at their full discretion with several obstacles to overcome in order to get help with tuition costs.

Tuition Reimbursement is Offered Often and Rarely Used

survey report on employee benefits found that 51% of companies now offer undergraduate tuition reimbursement and 49% offer graduate education support. Although more than half of most companies offer some type of assistance with the cost of higher education, it is estimated that only 5% on average participate in their employer’s tuition reimbursement benefit program. This is according to a study on Student Loan Relief and Tuition Reimbursement.

Tuition Reimbursement: It is estimated that only 5% of people a tuition reimbursement benefit participate.

Even though more than 50% of employers offer tuition reimbursement as a benefit, it should seem odd that only 5% of the people that have it available are able to take advantage of the financial assistance to further their education. With the price of a college education now estimated to double in price every 9 years, why wouldn’t more people be taking advantage of their employer’s tuition reimbursement? The reason is employers are quick to point out the benefit of their tuition reimbursement but then rarely grant the approval.

Why Do Employers Offer Tuition Reimbursement?

The big question with so many companies offering the benefit of tuition reimbursement is why offer it and then not allow an employee to use it? The reason for this can partly be the initial cost for a company to offer tuition reimbursement but also in some of their intentions to never really allow financial assistance with getting an education.

Although tuition reimbursement programs are tax-deductible for businesses up to about $5,250 for an employee, some companies just really do not want to spend the money. This is even while promoting the available benefit of tuition reimbursement. Hiring managers and HR departments know the benefit of offering financial assistance for higher education. They know it can be a good tool to use to hire and retain quality people. The problem very often is even when tuition reimbursement might be listed in the benefits package it might not be that easy to get. It will frequently come with several stipulations and these details are frequently overlooked in the hiring process.

Because a growing number of employers are offering tuition reimbursement, an increasing number of them also know they need to offer it. This is even if they do not intend to allow many of their employees to take advantage of the benefit. To stay competitive, hire talented employees while also retaining them employers know tuition reimbursement is becoming a standard benefit potential employees are looking for.

How Do Employers Offer Tuition Reimbursement but Rarely Allow It?

Tuition reimbursement as an employer-provided benefit isn’t something that must be offered. Employers do it because it can be a way to attract talented potential employees and retain them. Because financial assistance for higher education is a voluntary benefit, an employer can put some terms and conditions on qualifying for it. This is where it can become a challenge to truly take advantage of a company paying for part of a college education.

It is illegal to discriminate based on several factors, such as age, sex, or color. An employer only allowing men to get the benefit of tuition reimbursement or people under the age of thirty could certainly be a problem. Yet, the truth is even with discrimination laws in place employers always have the upper hand to come up with something to either allow or not allow something to happen. There likely won’t be clear forms of discrimination for tuition reimbursement benefits in a company but there will regularly be times when it might not make sense for the benefit to be denied.

What Are Some Common Terms and Conditions That Come With an Employer’s Tuition Reimbursement?

Class or program needs to be related to the job

You might want to pursue a college education in education but your employer might only support degrees or classes taken in finance. This is just an example of how an employer might limit the degree a person can pursue with tuition reimbursement or the classes taken. An employee offered tuition reimbursement at a company might want to go to college for something that isn’t relatable to their job. If this is a condition for tuition reimbursement approval, there could be a very limited selection of degrees or courses to take that a company might pay for.

Time on the job

Employers do not want to pay for someone’s education only to have them leave for another company. This is understandable and often tuition reimbursement comes with the requirement of a person that receives the benefit to stay with a company for a period. If that employee leaves for example within a two-year range, they might be required to pay back any tuition reimbursement.

Paying back tuition reimbursement when leaving a company early might result in missing a final paycheck and getting a bill for the total amount due in the mail.

Grades will likely matter

Tuition reimbursement regularly works on exactly what it says. An employee is reimbursed for the cost they initially pay for educational courses. If a person fails a class the employer might not pay anything. A grade of “B” might only be covered for 80% of the cost of a class while an employer might pay 100% of the cost for an “A.”  

If an employer has terms for their tuition reimbursement stating that only a grade of “B” or better is covered for the cost of the class, a person might be paying for it on their own if a “C” grade is the result. This is even when a “C” might legitimately pass the class.

Time with a company

Reimbursing employees at a company for higher education costs are an investment for a business. For this reason, they will understandably want the time out of an employee for providing the benefit. Part-time employees or people that have only been working for a company for a short period of time might be denied tuition reimbursement until they meet the requirement for time on the job.

An employer might be quick to offer tuition reimbursement in their benefits package but it might require one or two years working with that company to qualify for the assistance. A person that remains employed part-time might never qualify for tuition reimbursement.

Requiring specific educational institutions

Because tuition reimbursement is not a required benefit at an organization, they can specify a number of qualifications for receiving it. This includes only reimbursing education costs for attending certain schools. An employee that wants to attend an online-only college might be surprised to learn their employer won’t pay for it under their tuition reimbursement program. The company might only approve courses taken at a traditional university with in-person learning.

Although more businesses are becoming accepting of degrees earned online, there are still a lot of them that are holding onto conventional values.

Prior approval

It is understandable that approval would be required for an employee of a company to take advantage of the benefit of tuition reimbursement. However, getting approval from a company to reimburse an employee for higher education costs often needs to come from a department head or direct supervisor. This is where the true discretion lies for tuition reimbursement and an application for the benefit will often end here.

The fact is a lot of employers that offer tuition reimbursement only do so to attract future employees. The benefit is rarely used according to the statistics and this is not because more people do not want to further their education. The reality is a lot of employers deny tuition reimbursement even when it is available.

Because department or direct supervisor support is often required for getting tuition reimbursement, they regularly do not see the value in granting the approval. An employee that takes classes can be one that is not as focused at work and they may have to devote more time to their education.

The benefit of tuition reimbursement can weigh heavily on a person’s relationship with their manager due to the approval process. Furthermore, tuition assistance can be dependent on the position a person holds. Just because the benefit is defined as being available to every full-time employee this doesn’t mean the organization favors more entry-level employees being able to take advantage of getting reimbursed for higher education.

Strict guidelines on qualifying for tuition reimbursement in combination with the requirement of department approval and discretion make it challenging commonly to get tuition assistance at many organizations.

What are some good questions to ask about an employer’s tuition reimbursement?

If working for a current company or interviewing for a position and the benefit of tuition reimbursement is important, there are some important questions to ask in order to learn the odds of possibly getting it.

  • Can any degree or classes be taken?
  • What length of time does a person need to work for the company to get tuition reimbursement?
  • What amount of money is available each year for tuition reimbursement?
  • What percentage of the cost for a class is covered for certain grades?
  • Is a passing grade required?
  • What levels of education qualify for tuition reimbursement?
  • Is manager or supervisor approval required for tuition reimbursement?
  • How many people at the company use tuition reimbursement?
  • How long is a person required to remain with the company if granted tuition reimbursement?

The important point to remember with getting higher education tuition assistance from a current or future employer is to ask a lot of questions. All too often potential employers will mention tuition reimbursement as a benefit but fail to go into the fine details on how an employee would qualify. A current employer will frequently do the same thing.

If a company knows a potential employee or current valued employee is focused on tuition reimbursement as a benefit, they will be quick to point out the benefit without including many of the details until it is required. This is done because many of them know it can be difficult to qualify for their tuition reimbursement.

Tuition Reimbursement: It’s not a guarantee

Because the cost of higher education has gotten so expensive, people are looking for ways to help with the expense. Tuition reimbursement as a benefit from a current or potential employer can be a good way to pay for going to college. Yet, it’s important to understand there are no guarantees.

Just because a company you interview with learns you are going to college and they point out their tuition reimbursement benefit this doesn’t mean you will get it. There are frequently strict guidelines and an approval process that can make getting tuition reimbursement a challenge. Moreover, the support for getting reimbursed for higher education is commonly at the discretion of a direct manager or supervisor.

A company that offers tuition reimbursement can’t blatantly discriminate on who gets the benefit and who does not. However, just like most company benefits that are not required they can easily come up with ways to deny tuition reimbursement or make it difficult to qualify. The statistics show that this is likely what they often do.

This is not to say there are not some great companies that do give a lot of their employee’s tuition reimbursement. But rather the research shows that many more organizations present the benefit of financial assistance with higher education without the intent to ever let many employees take advantage of it.

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