Good intentions don’t guarantee good results. That holds true when it comes to tuition assistance for continuing education.
According to research from the Human Capital Media (HCM) Advisory Group, the research arm of Chief Learning Officer magazine, three out of four companies (78 percent) encourage employees to pursue undergraduate and advanced degrees while working, but only one in four employees (23 percent) actually do.
Two reasons loom large behind the disconnect: time and resources. Workers have multiple, often conflicting personal and professional demands and limited tuition assistance dollars only stretch so far. For some employers, online education may help strike a balance.
“We really do believe that online education is going to be a critical piece of the delivery of career development and education to our employees,” said Kathleen Weslock, chief human resources officer for SunGard, a provider of technology services and infrastructure to the financial services, higher education and public sectors.
Online Equals Anytime
Weslock remembers the stress she felt from her own struggle to attend law school while simultaneously holding down a full time job. SunGard struck up a partnership with DeVry University’s Keller Center for Corporate Learning to use tuition assistance money for online education aimed at easing that pain for those workers among the company’s 22,000 employees with that same ambition.
The move doesn’t come without some of its own pain, however. Older employees schooled in traditional education methods often struggle with the transition.
“Moving to online is really a paradigm shift for many,” she said. “Companies need to recognize that while there’s good flexibility, ease of access and richness of content, this delivery does cause some people to have concern.”
SunGard is monitoring the partnership with Keller to gauge the impact, but Weslock said increased flexibility and accessibility should outweigh the potential drawbacks.
Online education is particularly effective for adult learners who need the flexibility to pace themselves, said Brett Shively, vice president, Keller Center for Corporate Learning.
“You may need to do your class work at midnight after you’ve put the kids to bed. You may need to do it at 4 in the morning before the kids get up,” he said. “People find it easier to stick with a program when they can control the times that they have to participate.”
Making the Most of Tuition Assistance
Beyond time, the other barrier to continuing education is money. The IRS caps non-taxable annual education benefits at $5,250 per employee, meaning any amount an employer provides for tuition assistance above that is taxable to the employee.
And at the organizational level, budget cuts continue to bite. According to the research from the HCM Advisory Group, just more than half (51 percent) of organizations surveyed offer tuition reimbursement to all employees. Twenty-eight percent offer it on a case-by-case basis. Of those that didn’t, 58 percent said it simply wasn’t in the budget and a further 26 percent didn’t see it as a priority for employee engagement.
At SunGard, individual business units offered tuition assistance in the past but the partnership with Keller is aimed at providing the benefit company-wide. To keep costs in check for both employees and employer, the company has negotiated discounted tuition and waivers of some fees, Weslock said.
Customized Education: Online, On-site and on Campus
In working with education providers, companies often customize the course curriculum to ensure employees are getting education that will make them better on the job, Shively said.
Many companies also customize how that education is delivered, mixing online courses with traditional classes on campus as well as courses on the job site. Those mixing online with in person and on-site are having better success with their programs, Shively said.
“Oftentimes, we’ll see it vary more by type of class. For more general classes and classes students are comfortable with, they’ll choose to do it online,” he said. For more challenging subject matter, students will often go on campus to sit down in person with an instructor.
Whatever combination they pursue, Weslock said it’s important to do your homework before setting up a partnership with an educational provider. “We spent a lot of time getting to know each other — the philosophy, the values, making sure that we had a real match as one company to another. The more you put into it up front, the more you get back,” she said.
Shively said potential partners should evaluate a provider’s educational accreditation, scope and size of offerings, ability to customize the curriculum and the quality of delivery.
“Learning leaders in organizations really ought to go in and take a look at the online program to ensure it’s not just the downloading of PDFs but rather it is in fact a true online learning experience,” he said.
At one point, online learning simply meant that students opened and read a document before taking a test on the material. It’s evolved from those early days into a more robust learning experience.
“Online classes now are very interactive with access to a professor, access to other students, as well as access to anything you’d find on a traditional campus like a library, resource materials, a success coach and assistance through your entire experience,” Shively said.
That evolution is not lost on people who grew up through a traditional campus educational experience. Weslock’s eyes were opened after her son took an online course through Lehigh University and she saw how far online education had come.
“When we started talking about DeVry, I thought this was a really exciting opportunity for our employees because they don’t have flexibility to attend classes,” she said. “They have a much tighter time schedule. Online has to be the way of the future.”
For more, read Chief Learning Officer’s special report on employee education.
Mike Prokopeak is editorial director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at mikep@CLOMedia.com.