U.S. companies currently spend an estimated $20 billion each year on tuition benefits programs — and interest in providing education as a benefit is only growing. This focus is well-placed: In an era where quit rates continue to surge, a 2018 LinkedIn report indicates that 94 percent of employees say they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career.
Thousands of corporations now have programs that help employees attend a wide range of colleges, universities and other education providers. Others have more targeted partnerships with individual colleges and universities. Most make it more affordable — in a few cases, free — for employees to pursue higher education.
Yet education-as-benefits have shockingly low uptake rates from employees. Estimates suggest that just 3-5 percent of employees take advantage of such programs.
The challenge stems, in part, from the fact that most education benefit programs were built around the archetype of a white-collar breadwinner who often has extensive support at home and can pursue advanced education (often a graduate degree) on weekends or in the evening.
In contrast, demand for credentials and training today comes from a much more diverse population of workers. They are frontline workers, pursuing an associate degree or even a high school diploma while juggling hourly shifts and responsibilities at home. They are midcareer changers, looking to build entirely new skills to keep pace with the shifting demands of the labor market.
But the prevailing model for tuition assistance has largely failed to evolve to meet the needs of these workers.
While all these programs solve for one key barrier to education — cost — they often don’t address the other barriers that keep working adults out of education. In fact, the No. 1 reason employees say they are held back from learning is that they don’t have the time.
Fields that have the highest uptake rates for continued training often require a considerable time investment (think licensing requirements for doctors and lawyers), provide the time to learn during the workday or both. When I taught English at Edward Brooke Charter School in the Boston area, I continuously pursued additional education and training because it was built into my standard workload. That training was essential to staying relevant in the classroom — and I wouldn’t have been able to fit it in if my school, like many schools across the country, hadn’t scheduled four hours every week for continuing my own education.
The time crunch is even more acute for today’s diverse workers. Indeed, the challenge of engaging working learners through tuition assistance programs is familiar to college and university leaders, who are struggling to retain a new majority of American students who don’t fit the traditional archetype. As the world of work evolves, so too have the demographics of higher education.
Corporate churn rates continue to increase, while dropout rates for working adults remain stubbornly high. And neither education providers nor employers can address those alone — education providers can’t carve up shifts and schedules to make more time for learning during the workday, and employers can’t make courses available at the right times. Blending the world of school and the world of work to make the concept of learning and earning a reality depends on active collaboration between educators and employers. It requires coordination to remove barriers and create the time and space for students who have precious little of both.
A growing body of research indicates that some lost work time wouldn’t hurt productivity. Employees’ time is already often wasted with frequent interruptions, overly long meetings and excessive emailing. A few organizations have begun experimenting with a six-hour workday or with four-day workweeks, and early results indicate that, in many cases, the moves have boosted employee productivity and satisfaction. Forward-thinking employers should not only be defraying the cost of education, but also be building time for it into employees’ regular workdays.
Fiat Chrysler partners with Strayer University to offer no-cost degrees to employees at participating dealerships. In addition to covering the costs of the degree, some dealers provide dedicated space on-site for employees to complete coursework. Dealerships that participate in the Strayer partnership post higher employee retention and better sales performance than non-participating dealerships.
If we want education to be a real benefit for employees, we must give them time to take advantage of it. Otherwise, we’re wasting tremendous effort, and potentially billions of dollars, if we can’t figure out ways to reach more workers — particularly those who could benefit most.