Balancing your career with college coursework requires tremendous focus and dedication, especially when you’re returning to college as an adult. Luckily, there are dozens of ways to find support and you just may have more people in your corner than you think – and among those undercover players in your support network could be your employer.
More than 50% of employers offer undergraduate tuition assistance.
Tuition assistance, or tuition reimbursement, is a company-offered benefit that gives you the opportunity to have your college courses paid by your employer. Tuition assistance programs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: some companies offer reimbursement for a certain amount of courses each year, while others set a cap on the dollar amount that's eligible for reimbursement. The specific details will be spelled out within company policy manual or employee handbook.
Interested in accessing tuition assistance at your place of work? Let’s explore how these programs operate so you can start taking advantage of this valuable benefit.
5 Things to Know About Tuition Reimbursement
1. Review the Company Policy
Kick off this process by reaching out to your employer’s Human Resources (HR) team to see what’s available. From there, review the policy and be prepared to ask questions. Here are a handful of examples that may be helpful:
- Can I pursue any degree or does it have to be related to my current job?
- Do I need to get approval from my supervisor?
- How long do I need to work at the company before I’m eligible for tuition assistance?
- What level of education is covered? Bachelor’s, master’s, certificates, or professional development?
- Can I take courses during work hours?
- What is the reimbursement amount per year?
- Does the benefit cover fees or just tuition?
- Do I need to get passing grades in order to get reimbursement and if so, what’s the requirement?
2. Make a Payment Game Plan
Even with tuition assistance, it’s highly likely that you’ll need to make an upfront tuition payment and get reimbursed afterwards. This is another area where you’ll want to ask a lot of questions:
- When do you issue the reimbursement?
- What sort of documentation do I need to submit to initiate the reimbursement (course registration confirmation, tuition bills, etc.)?
- If the policy requires a passing grade, what happens if I don’t meet this requirement: will I get reimbursed for the partial or full amount?
If you don’t have the funds readily available to cover the upfront tuition costs, there are two primary options you can pursue: payment plans and financial aid.
To learn more about a tuition payment plan, contact the college’s business office. A typical payment plan will break up the tuition costs into three or four payments. This will spread your out-of-pocket payments over the duration of the term. This is a great route to take: often your employer reimbursement will land soon after successful completion of your courses, so you won’t need to wait long to even out your bank balance.
Many working professionals don't even realize that financial aid is available for adult students. If the upfront tuition costs would be difficult to manage, financial aid is a great option, too. Complete a FAFSA and see if you’re eligible for federal student loans. Be sure to make payments as soon as you’re reimbursed so you can maximize your benefit, and minimize student loan debt. It’s important to remember that you must be enrolled in a degree program to use financial aid: if you’re just taking a course or two for professional development or trying out a class before you officially apply, financial aid won’t be an option.
3. Plan Carefully
When you have tuition assistance from your employer, it’s easy to become motivated and take an ambitious course load. However, you’ll want to be mindful of how quickly you progress and how many tuition dollars you use. If you only get a certain amount of tuition assistance each year, you may want to spread out your courses so your funds don’t dry up. You’ll also want to ask your academic advisor to weigh in on your plans: if a certain required course is only offered during the spring semester, you’ll want to make sure you have tuition assistance funds available.
There are also tax implications. IRS guidelines may require you to pay tax on any amount of educational assistance that tops $5,250. Note: most companies are aware of this stipulation and limit the tuition benefit to this amount or less so you don’t need to worry.
4. Find Your Add/Drop Dates
Consult the academic calendar and be aware of “add/drop” dates, which is the period of time you can safely add or withdraw from courses without financial penalty. This means that if you get busy at home or work and can’t commit to your course, as long as you drop the course by the appropriate date, you won’t have to worry about compromising your tuition benefit.
5. You Can Save THOUSANDS of Dollars
If your employer offers this benefit, take advantage! The cost of a bachelor’s degree can range from $38k to over $130k. Meanwhile, a tuition assistance program can save you up to $20,000. Even the most affordable colleges are an investment and if you have an employer who can relieve some of the financial pressure, you’ll be more likely to finish your degree.
2015 Employee Benefits: An Overview of Employee Benefits Offerings in the U.S., Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
Trends in College Pricing, College Board.