Earn Your Master's Through Employer Tuition Reimbursement

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By Joshua Gunn

Craig Brownsen, a medical coder at the University of Washington Medical facility, recalls being surprised when his boss approached him about getting a Masters in Business Administration (MBA). "I hadn't even thought about getting my MBA, but suddenly my boss was telling me that if I wanted it, the company would pay for it. I was stunned. It was the first I'd ever heard of employer tuition reimbursement."

With more companies implementing employee tuition reimbursement programs, earning an online graduate degree is easier than ever, and easier on your pocketbook. According to a recent article in Education Advisory Services, half of today's major corporations reimburse 100 percent of their employees' tuition. Why pay for an online master's degree when your boss may be willing to foot the bill?

While employer tuition reimbursement programs are expanding, too few employees are familiar with these programs or how to take advantage of them. The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans estimates that less than 15 percent of eligible employees use their tuition assistance benefits. Read on to find out how you may be able to get your employer to pay for your educational aspirations.

A Win-Win Proposition

Tuition reimbursement programs are great for both employers and employees: Companies make tax-free contributions for job training or education, while staff members gain valuable knowledge and job skills at little or no cost. Everyone benefits from the competitive edge that employees gain through an advanced degree.

The Xerox Corporation reports that over 1,700 of its employees currently take advantage of its company tuition reimbursement program, with roughly half of these students enrolling in online classes. "We try to be as flexible as possible when it comes to our employees' educational needs," says Xerox public relations manager Laura Margelas. "We want to give them as much support as they show us on a daily basis."

There are other reasons why companies provide tuition reimbursement programs:

  • Companies have recruiting, productivity, and retention goals that these programs help them meet
  • Educated employees are highly valued in every career field, which is why employers are willing to go the extra mile to help train their staff
  • Employees who benefit from reimbursement programs report higher levels of job satisfaction and are more likely to remain loyal to their employers

How Programs Are Structured

If your company does offer a program, it's time to take advantage of it. The structure of a company's reimbursement program revolves around its individual business goals, which is why programs can vary drastically between companies, or even within departments of a larger company. In general, there are four key elements that you should find out about your company's tuition reimbursement program: Employee eligibility, covered degree or certification programs, reimbursement procedures, and how well you have to do in your degree program to receive reimbursement.

1. Eligibility

Most companies offer tuition reimbursement benefits only to full-time employees, but a few companies offer tuition reimbursement options to all employees, including part-time staff. Some employees are required to work for their company for a certain period of time before they are eligible (six months is standard), while many companies have employees pledge to stay with their job for a stipulated length of time after their education is complete (two years, for instance). This protects businesses from paying for their employees' education, only to have them leave immediately afterwards for more attractive career opportunities.

2. Covered Programs

Companies often define which types of programs they are willing to cover—academic, technical or vocational. Plus, the larger the company, the greater your education options are likely to be, since larger companies are more capable of covering the financial costs of employee education.

Regardless of company size, employees are also often limited to degree programs that are "work related." However, every company defines this term differently. A number of businesses pay only for classes that relate to staff members' current jobs, while others allow employees to take classes that develop their professional skills and help them grow into higher positions within the company.

3. Reimbursement

The IRS allows employers to contribute up to $5,250 tax-free in education assistance, which is why some companies cap their tuition reimbursement programs at just over $5,000 dollars. However, many companies cover much more than this sum.

"Microsoft paid every penny of my master's degree in web development," recalls former Microsoft employee Lisa Groeller. "I think tuition reimbursement is one of the smartest things a company can do for employee satisfaction, and one of the best programs an employee can take advantage of. It's almost criminal not to."

4. How Your Performance Matters

Nowadays, many companies run their tuition reimbursement programs on a tiered scale based on student performance. For example, students who receive an A in a course are reimbursed 100 percent, while students who receive Bs and Cs are reimbursed at 80 percent and 50 percent, respectively. Some companies choose not to reimburse grades lower than a B or C. Employers may also withhold reimbursement for up to a year, so that students can prove their new skills on the job.

It is also common for companies to reimburse students at the successful completion of a course and not before. While this method may put a financial strain on employees, companies argue that it offers more incentive for students to do well in their programs.

Popular Degree Programs

The key to getting your company to pick up the tab for your education is showing employers how new skills will enhance your performance in the workplace. That said, there are certain degree programs that employers tend to favor. "We encourage employees to focus on IT-related course work and certification programs," explains Harold Mackey, a PR representative for General Mills Corporation, "because the technology develops and changes so rapidly, and everything in the workplace revolves around computers."

Nowadays, it is convenient to earn an Online Master's Degree in Information Technology (IT). The following popular IT online master's degree programs are favored by employers and employees for their practicality and usefulness:

  • Computer Science
  • Database Management
  • Network and Communications Management
  • Network Systems Administration

Tuition reimbursement programs aren't limited to the IT world, however. Many companies are also willing to pay for online master's degree programs in many specialties:

  • Business Administration (MBA Degree Programs)
  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Human Resources Management
  • Management
  • Marketing