4 Steps to a More Successful Tuition Assistance Program

Tuition assistance programs (or TAPs) can close employees’ skill gaps in the near term, and strengthen your internal pipeline of leadership candidates in the long term. The challenge is to manage investments in employee education in a way that maximizes returns–both for the employer and the employee.

To that end, Bellevue University’s Human Capital Lab and EdLink hosted a webinar based on the findings of two recent studies: Employer Value from Investing in Workforce Education and The Value of Tuition Assistance. The webinar–presented by Joe Hare, Associate Director of Human Capital Lab, and John Zappa, CEO of EdLink–offered great data on the benefits of TAPs.

I followed up with Zappa for some advice on the things to consider when developing a successful plan. Here are a few steps to get you started.

1. Align Desired Business Outcomes with Investment Levels

Work with your senior management team to define what you want your TAP to accomplish. Then set quantifiable, measurable goals. These can be as high level as boosting employee engagement, or as specific as increasing bilingual skills across the organization.

The question of cost should be addressed early on. Goals critical to the performance of your business warrant a larger investment in TAP. For less critical goals, you can follow industry standards ($2,942 annually for undergraduate, $5,131 for graduate education).

To manage costs somewhat predictably, you might consider breaking qualifying coursework into groups. Here is an example:

2. Communicate Guidelines, Expectations and Opportunities

Plan guidelines should address what skills are valuable to the employer, and why. “Employees need to understand clearly what learning is appropriate and valued, as well as the outcomes that are expected by the company,” says Zappa.

Make it easy for employees to understand your business needs and how to make education choices that support those needs. Talk to employees about your tuition program in the onboarding process and periodically hold Q&A sessions to bolster interest and adoption.

Zappa also suggests tackling learn-and-leave concerns head on by identifying opportunities for growth directly resulting from participation.

Communicate the skills and competencies you value in next-level roles, and encourage employees to pursue them. “That is an effective and powerful way to proactively manage the program,” says Zappa, “as opposed to the ‘after the fact’ when employees have already received the education and are wondering how best to benefit from their new knowledge and skills.”

You can also add a clawback clause to your program whereby participants must pay back assistance if they leave before a certain period of time.

3. Balance Guidelines with Flexibility and Opportunity

While clear guidelines and qualifications will help to ensure a TAP supports your business goals, a flexible plan that makes it easy for employees to pursue their personal goals is also important. This includes covering everything from four-year degrees to continuous learning and applied learning coursework, which employees can accomplish in a shorter time frame.

Courses unrelated to an employee’s current position shouldn’t be outright excluded. As Zappa explains, these provide opportunities for employees to acquire new skills and knowledge beyond the boundaries of their current role. This can improve employee satisfaction (which aids in retention) and create more rounded employees.

4. Continuously Compile Data on Program Performance

“In too many instances, tuition assistance is managed as a siloed expense item within a company,” says Zappa. For your program to have the greatest impact (and lasting success), it should be treated as an investment in a larger talent management strategy. To that end, measuring program outcomes–and how they affect other business initiatives–is essential.

“Just like with any other strategic investment, a company cannot manage it effectively unless it measures what is going on and manages the policy to support the desired outcomes,” says Zappa.

Track changes in retention rates and engagement levels, and compare data against nonparticipants. In addition, cross reference this data with things like customer satisfaction or changes in sales numbers for hard data on the value of the program.

If the program is driving desired outcomes, consider allocating more resources to allow more employees to participate. If not, survey employees to identify the reasons. Were guidelines and qualifications too rigid? Was course completion an issue? Were work schedules an obstacle?

Brains Trump Braun in Effective Employee Education

Investing in employee education is a great way to foster higher retention rates and improve employee performance, but at the end of the day you’re working with limited resources. Whether you’re creating a new TAP or revamping an old one, remember that an effective plan doesn’t have to be a large plan. It has to be smart.

By matching company needs with employee goals, you can encourage workforce learning without a big budget. “A small, smartly crafted tuition program can encourage employees to participate and invest in their own career development,” says Zappa.

What successes have you had with tuition reimbursement? How has employe participation affected performance, engagement and retention? Leave a comment, and join the conversation. 


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