Thinking of going back to school so you can leap ahead in your career? Your employer might help pay for it — if you know how to ask. Just follow these steps.
Step 1: Explore Your Options
Start with the benefits section of your employee handbook. Look for info about educational assistance or reimbursement programs. Or ask your manager or a human resources representative for details.
Many large companies have a standard policy on educational benefits, usually covering a fixed amount per year with a lifetime maximum, said Anthony Riani, a Seattle-area compensation expert and former instructor for UW Professional & Continuing Education's Certificate in Human Resources Management. Smaller companies may offer educational perks as a way to attract top talent, and it’s a growing trend for companies with a high volume of entry-level or low-skilled employees — like Starbucks and Walmart — to subsidize college costs, Riani said.
“They want their employees to acquire skills so they can start advancing in the company,” said Riani.
If you really want to study something, define your goals and go for it. Have the passion to sell it to your employer.
Anthony Riani, Seattle-area compensation expert
Be sure to note what kind of programs your company considers eligible for financial assistance. Master’s degrees and certificate programs typically qualify, provided they relate to your current job or potential career path. You might also be able to receive assistance for courses or specializations. And programs that prepare students for professional certification in areas like health care or project management are particularly attractive to employers.
“For certain jobs, you need those certifications,” Riani said.
Step 2: Make Your Case
Find the program that’s right for you, then talk with your manager. Be ready to describe what you expect to learn and, most importantly, what skills you’ll be able to contribute to your organization.
“Companies always look at it as an investment,” Riani said. “They want the employees to study something related to their job or any kind of promotion or career path.”
As you prepare to make your case, ask yourself these key questions:
- If educational assistance doesn’t cover all your costs, can you pay for the rest from savings or student loans?
- How long will your program take? Will you study at night or on weekends? Be ready to explain how you’ll manage all your commitments — at work, at school and at home. Talk with your manager about any anticipated schedule conflicts.
- Are you a top performer? Employers may be less likely to spend company money on underperforming employees or those who may not be at the business for the long term, Riani said.
- Do you have a five-year plan? Riani suggests mapping out where you want to see yourself in five years and how your education can get you there.
Don’t give up if your company doesn’t have a formal educational assistance program — talk with your manager about how the education you want will improve your work.
“Try to convince them,” Riani said. “It depends on their budget; it depends on several factors. Align with that five-year plan. Return-on-investment is very important.”
Step 3: Read the Fine Print
To secure your educational assistance, make sure you know your obligations before you sign up for class:
- Does your employer require pre-approval? Some companies require that you get their forms signed before class begins to ensure your costs are reimbursed.
- How are your educational costs paid? Usually employees pay their school bills themselves and then apply for reimbursement. If that’s the case, make sure you can cover the bills until you get reimbursed.
- Are there grade requirements? To get reimbursed, employees are usually required to achieve at least satisfactory completion for non-credit courses, or a C (2.0 average) for credit courses, said Sandra Awakuni, associate director of Registration Services at UW Professional & Continuing Education.
- How long do you have to work at the company? Some policies require employees to stay at the workplace for a period of time after receiving educational assistance, usually no more than one to two years. Riani said employees who depart an organization earlier may be asked to repay all or part of their educational costs.
step 4: Go For It
There’s a good chance your employer offers some kind of educational assistance — nearly 60 percent of companies do. Yet employees don’t always take advantage of the benefit.
“If the company offers it, you should use it," Riani said.
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