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.
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 dollar amount per year, said Justin Sun, a compensation advisor at Expedia Group and an instructor for UW Professional & Continuing Education's Certificate in Human Resources Management. Companies offer educational perks as a way to attract top talent and encourage ongoing professional development.
“New technologies, laws and practices are always emerging, and it’s important for organizations to stay abreast of what the trends are,” Sun said. “Tuition reimbursement allows employees to learn new skills and grow their knowledge in ways that companies may not be able to offer internally.”
It's really important to build a strong business case, to show not just how you’re going to benefit from this [educational] program, but also more specifically how your organization is going to benefit.
Justin Sun, compensation advisor at Expedia Group
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. The growth of online learning options and shorter programs, such as specializations, mean there are now more choices for adding skills and quickly applying them to your job.
“The pandemic showed that we’re able to learn and collaborate in a variety of ways, especially online,” Sun said. “A lot of people need to take classes remotely, so online learning programs and conferences have become more prevalent and accepted.”
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 you’ll be able to bring back and contribute to your organization.
“It's really important to build a strong business case, to show not just how you’re going to benefit from this program, but also more specifically how your organization is going to benefit,” Sun said. “Whether it's increased innovation, better productivity, or increased technical or nontechnical acumen, being able to highlight how the skills you develop will support the company in achieving its main priorities is key.”
As you prepare to make your case, ask yourself these 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, especially in uncertain economic times.
- Do you have a five-year plan? Experts suggest mapping out where you want to see yourself in five years, and think about how your education can help you get 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.
“If there’s no official tuition reimbursement program, that makes it even more important to build that business case from the ground up,” Sun noted.
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 companies require employees to stay at the workplace for a set period of time after receiving educational assistance, Sun said, which helps with worker retention. He noted that employees who depart an organization earlier may be asked to repay all or part of their educational costs.
4. Go for It
There’s a good chance your employer offers some kind of educational assistance — about half of companies do, according to Sun, including iconic organizations such as Starbucks, Microsoft and Salesforce. Yet workers don’t always take advantage of the benefit.
“As an employee, you should always consider both the monetary and nonmonetary compensation aspects of your total rewards package,” he said. “Even if your employer can’t provide you with a promotion or large merit increase, don’t be afraid to ask them to fund a certificate or degree in lieu of such rewards. It’s a great way to accelerate your development.”
Ready to boost your skills and your career? Explore our certificate, degree and specialization programs, or contact an enrollment coach to discuss your options.