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Business News/ Education / Now May Be the Time to Ask Your Employer to Help With Tuition
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Now May Be the Time to Ask Your Employer to Help With Tuition


To assist with recruitment and retention, companies offer a range of tuition benefits. They come in all shapes and sizes, so employees should read the fine print.

Ashlie Strevig of Synchrony Financial says employer help for education is ‘ something that I will never take for granted .’ Premium
Ashlie Strevig of Synchrony Financial says employer help for education is ‘ something that I will never take for granted .’

Looking to get a college or graduate degree for little to no cost? Your employer may be able to help.

Tuition benefits have been around for many years, but some companies are promoting them more—and more employees are partaking—amid a tight labor market, rising concerns about student-debt burdens and skyrocketing college costs. The nature of the programs is also shifting, with several companies adding prepaid options so employees don’t have to shell out their own money for degrees.

Program offerings, which may be for online or in-person classes, vary widely. For example, benefits may be different for full-time and part-time employees, or offerings may vary based on an employee’s role within the organization. There may be restrictions on the type or number of degrees employees can seek, and how long a worker needs to be at the company to qualify. There can also be minimum-grade requirements, or clawback provisions if employees leave while they are pursuing a degree or for a certain time after completion.

Both sides say they stand to gain from the programs. For businesses, it helps with retention and employee morale, and offers workers skill-building opportunities they need to advance—ideally within the company. Employees like the programs because they have their education significantly subsidized or completely covered.

“It’s something that I will never take for granted," says Ashlie Strevig, practice development manager for the health and wellness division of Synchrony Financial, a consumer financial-services company based in Stamford, Conn.

Strevig, 34 years old, graduated in March from the University of Maryland Global Campus with a bachelor’s of science in health services administration management and a minor in marketing, initially getting reimbursed from Synchrony and later using its prepaid option for the full tuition.

Strevig, who is married with two children, says paying for the degree herself would have been a strain on her family’s finances. “Every company should offer educational opportunities to help everyone grow and get the skills they might be missing out on," she says.

Retention benefits

Companies that offer tuition benefits say they benefit through greater retention. At Chipotle Mexican Grill, a restaurant company based in Newport Beach, Calif., employees who complete the program, on average, stay with the company for twice as long as those who haven’t gone through the program, says Daniel Banks, director of global benefits. Employees are also more likely to be promoted, he says. Since 2019, 30.5% of Chipotle employees enrolled in tuition-assistance or tuition-reimbursement programs through its education-benefits provider have been promoted, according to data provided by the company.

Chipotle offers 100% prepaid tuition at 10 universities. This option focuses on undergraduate degrees, but employees also have prepaid choices for GEDs, career certificates and English language learning. The company allows eligible employees to choose from more than 100 programs in areas like technology, business, culinary, agriculture and hospitality. For other undergrad programs and master’s degrees, employees can be reimbursed up to $5,250 a year, Banks says.

Walmart, which pays 100% of tuition and books for an undergraduate degree at morethan 25 universities, has also seen greater retention. The program, which also includesshort-form certificates that connect to in-demand jobs in its business, high-schoolcompletion and English language learning, is offered to associates and managers inU.S. stores, Sam’s Clubs and supply-chain facilities. Participating Walmart hourly associates are significantly more likely to stay at the company than nonparticipants, according to a September 2021 study by Lumina Foundation.

The ability to advance workers within the company is also a benefit to companies. The Walmart study found that participants are twice as likely to be promoted as nonparticipants. For its part, Disney says that more than 3,800 current employees have graduated since its tuition benefits program launched in 2018, and 3,100 students and graduates have been internally promoted.

At Bank of America in Fort Worth, Texas, having tuition assistance was “huge," says Polyanna Unruh, quality analyst for the prepaid-card-services department. Unruh, 26, used the company’s tuition benefits to get undergraduate and master’s degrees. For the bachelor’s she paid upfront each semester and got fully reimbursed. For the advanced degree, she chose the company’s prepaid option.

“In the future I definitely plan on using [tuition assistance] again, but for certifications, not another degree," she says.

There’s also a sense of company loyalty that stems from having received the benefit. “This is the place I want to retire," she says.

Tax impact

Many employers offer up to $5,250 a year in tuition reimbursement for college courses, which is the amount the Internal Revenue Service says can be excluded from taxable income. Some companies offer an even higher benefit, though employees are responsible for any associated taxes.

Synchrony, for instance, as an alternative to its prepaid option for bachelor’s degrees, provides reimbursement up to $20,000 a year for full-time employees and $5,000 a year for part-time employees. It covers degrees relevant to their job as well as degree programs related to healthcare and to education. In addition, Synchrony covers academic fees of up to $4,000 a year to cover items such as labs, textbooks and registration fees.

“It’s a really great way to encourage our employees to invest in themselves and to acquire the skills they need in the long-term," says D.J. Casto, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at Synchrony.

At Boeing, employees can receive assistance of $25,000 a year for graduate degree programs and $15,000 a year for undergraduate degree programs, as well as funding toward nondegree programs, according to information provided by the company. This is paid directly to the institution, so there’s no need to seek reimbursement. The company offers 100% funding for tuition and expenses for select STEM programs. There are 86 approved majors and strategic fields of study.

Prepaid option

More companies are trying to make it easier for employees by offering prepaid options so there’s no upfront cost to workers.

“It’s about removing any kind of obstacle that would prevent our associates from growing themselves and growing their career at Walmart," says Lorraine Stomski, who runs Walmart’s associate learning and leadership team.

That’s also why Meijer, a privately held supercenter and grocery chain in Grand Rapids, Mich., added the prepaid option last year, says Michelle Hall, senior vice president and chief human resources officer.

“It’s helping them on the front-end in terms of access and on the back-end in terms of maximizing their income coming out of the program without having that college debt," Hall says. The company says that enrollment in its education programs has more than doubled since it added the prepaid option, which includes more than 40 eligible fields of study at five online universities.

Fidelity Investments last year introduced a new fully-funded undergraduate degree program for entry-level customer-service phone representatives in its regional centers across the country. Eligible employees—associates working at least 30 hours a week—can choose from more than 190 programs at more than 30 schools and Fidelity pays the costs directly to the school. That’s in addition to its reimbursement program for eligible full-time employees, says Megan Bourque, the company’s head of benefits.

Disney offers 100% tuition paid up front for a range of program types, including high-school completion, English language learning, college prep and undergraduate and master’s degrees, according to information provided by the company., which offers education benefits in 14 countries, expanded its tuition benefit offerings for U.S. employees last year, and now offers English-language courses and high-school completion through bachelor’s degrees on a prepaid basis. Previously, the prepaid offering was only for certification programs. The U.S. program is open to hourly Amazon employees with 90 days of tenure. U.S. employees can choose from more than 400 education partners, and degrees aren’t limited to their roles at Amazon, says Tammy Thieman, global director of Amazon Career Choice.

“Our real goal is for the career success of our employees whether they stay at Amazon or not," she says.

Cheryl Winokur Munk is a writer in West Orange, N.J. She can be reached at

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