Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tuition Benefit: Unanswered Questions

Ninety-five percent of employers say they provide tuition benefits for employees and reimburse staffers for other forms of professional development or training. That very predictable bit of "news" is trumpeted in a press release from Accountemps, Robert Half International's temporary services division.

What Accountemps' latest survey factoid made me want to know is:

1. What percentage of employees' requests for tuition actually get approved? Presumably, at least 95 percent of the 95 percent have conditions attached to their reimbursement programs. Such as, the courses must be demonstrably relevant to the employee's current job duties – not just for the job or career that he or she hopes to have two years from now, or five years from now.

2. What is the typical percentage of tuition that employers promise to reimburse? And what is the annual cap on the dollar amount? Even when a program is unquestionably relevant to a staffer's current duties, if the request to attend was initiated by the employee rather than the boss, few companies will pay the full tab – especially if it runs into thousands of dollars per academic quarter.

3. What are the typical clawback provisions? In a previous job, everyone's employment agreement stated that the company had the right to recover any tuition reimbursements they'd paid out, if the employee left within two years after completing a course or program.

These are only a few questions that occcurred to me as basic components of any useful poll on this topic. The results might not make for breezy, promotional press releases of the sort that Accountemps churns out month after month. But they might help candidates draw realistic comparisons among employers on this one dimension.

A further question would be tougher to address in a survey – which perhaps makes it still more useful for candidates weighing a particular employer: Are tuition benefits open to all categories and levels of staffers (subject of course to the requisite approvals)? Or only to managers, "producers," staffers below age 30, or other privileged groups within the organization?

That's a question you're not likely to see official, forthright answers to. But it's one that candidates should at least think about when valuing the tuition benefits anticipated from any employer.

Like all benefits, tuition reimbursement is provided not to aid an employee's career, but because an employer anticipates that the education they're paying for will measurably benefit the organization through increased sales or lowered expenses. So if you're not in a role that measurably contributes to either sales or cost reduction (including risk reduction), you won't be a likely candidate for tuition reimbursement.

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