How much do employer-funded education benefits really boost access?

A number of the nation’s employers offer college tuition benefits to their workers, but a significant share of the billions of dollars earmarked for those programs goes unused, according to The Hechinger Report.

Researchers from The Graduate! Network, an organization that analyzes employee education programs, say that larger employers tend to spend about half of what they’ve allocated for tuition reimbursement. “Those are education dollars in the community that are being left on the table,” said Bridgett Strickler, a senior vice president at The Graduate! Network.

Financial, time commitments key barriers

Experts estimate that between 1 and 10 percent of eligible workers use employer-provided education benefits, and those who do tend to hail from “white-collar” professions. Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Labor at New America, says that companies with a large share of low-wage workers have especially low utilization of education benefits.

Some workers struggle to carve out time for college as they juggle work and family commitments. Others may be skeptical that available educational tracks will actually lead to higher wages.

For many, a major obstacle is the “reimbursement” approach used by most programs, in which workers must first make tuition payments and then seek reimbursement from their employer. Many low-wage workers don’t have the means to cover those costs up front.

Tailoring offerings to adult learners

With that in mind, Guild Education, a benefits management firm that helps employers with their educational offerings, is encouraging clients to shift to a “tuition assistance” model instead, eliminating the need for workers to pay out-of-pocket. “That is how we change the game,” said Matthew Daniel, a human resources researcher at Guild.

Haley Glover of the Lumina Foundation echoed the need for employers to cover tuition up front. Organizations looking to meet adult learners’ needs, Glover said, also must offer varied degree paths, flexible timelines, credit for on-the-job training, guidance, and curated college partnerships.

Proponents of employer-based college benefits say that, when optimized, the programs provide both a valuable recruitment and retention tool and a means of building a diverse skilled workforce. Employers with thoughtfully crafted offerings are seeing greater uptake, experts say.

Related: Companies maintain tuition assistance programs in spite of pandemic, economic downturn >

The University of Virginia in January moved away from its prior tuition-reimbursement model for employees and launched a new adult education offering called UVA Edge. Participants in the one-year program take six courses for $300, earning transferable credits. While noting that the program is still small and relatively new, Alex Hernandez, dean of UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, says it aligns with the university’s goal of broadening access to a college education.

“As a public university, success is not who we keep out of our classrooms,” Hernandez said. “Success is what we do with people once they’re in our classrooms.”

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