5 Tips For Getting More Employees Engaged in TAPs


Posted In: Workforce Insight

Feb • 1 • 2017

A study released earlier this year by the Institute For Corporate Productivity (i4CP) and the Aspen Institute’s Upskill America found that 89 percent of companies offer career development opportunities, such as tuition assistance programs (TAPs), to frontline employees, with nearly all indicating they intend either to retain or to expand those programs.

Yet when asked if those very same frontline employees actually took advantage of TAPs or other career development initiatives, 73 percent said they didn’t track how many workers took the opportunity, and 58 percent of those same companies responded that fewer than half did.


Tuition Assistance Programs as a Business Opportunity

In this article, we want to look at the challenge of employees not taking advantage of the opportunity to begin with. Low utilization rates for TAPs mean that organizations are not executing well on their talent development and retention strategy, says Patricia Shields, manager of business and partnership development for College for America. Which means they are missing out on the documented high ROI of TAPs.

Shields points to call centers that frequently have high turnover rates, sometimes in the 60 percent to 80 percent range. By upskilling those workers, retention rates improve, significantly cutting recruitment expenses. “If large call centers ratchet down that turnover rate by a couple of percentage points,” she says, “that could equate to thousands of dollars in savings.”

The bottom line impact is was demonstrated recently in an analysis by Accenture and the Lumina Foundation of Advocate Health Care’s tuition assistance program (which they call the Education Assistance Program). Between 2011 and 2015 every dollar invested yielded a 4.3 percent return for all employees in net savings that amounted to $7.4 million. In another study of Cigna’s TAP there was a documented ROI of 129%. 

As Shields has worked with companies nationwide to establish and improve their tuition assistance programs, she has observed several best practices that can boost TAP utilization.

1. Make it inclusive

Too often, organizations restrict TAPs to a select group of employees, such as high performers, or leave it to the discretion of a frontline manager to choose the workers for the program. That gives the wrong impression to frontline employees who might benefit most from the TAP.


If employees perceive the benefit as closed off to them, they likely never inquire about tuition assistance or undertake the program. “If you want to maximize the tuition assistance benefit, don’t make it exclusive,” Shields says. “It’s counter to improving engagement, culture, and bottom-line performance to make people feel like this benefit is not really for me.”

2. Visible support from C-suite and front-line management

For the program to take root, upper management must nurture it and commit to its success over the long term. Considering the significant dollar investment in TAPs, organizations stand to capture a high ROI only if they endorse it from the highest executive levels to ensure maximum participation.

Make that support visible to employees. Shields recalls a time when the CHRO of a College for America partner made a video introducing the program to all its employees. In it, he said, “We’re engaging in this partnership. We believe in you. We believe in your development. And if you want to do this, you can get your college education free.”

Having a high-ranking executive visibly promote the tuition assistance program underscored its importance and management’s willingness to get employees enrolled, Shields says. Yet she added that the message must filter down to all managers at all levels within the organization.

“Our most successful partners truly engage their frontline managers by helping them understand the partnership, its mechanics and how they can utilize it to the best advantage for their employees and the company,” she says.

3. Tailor the communications plan

A comprehensive and ongoing TAP promotional campaign further ensures its success. “You can’t just do a one-and-done communication,” Shields says. “That really does not gain traction for the program.”

She recommends dispatching messages about the TAP quarterly or every six months after the initial launch. Vary the message formats, too, so employees hear it where it fits with their schedule and job duties. Promote it in employee newsletters, but also send out text messages and Facebook posts, as well as displaying TAP information on monitors in common areas.

“The best scenario is a comprehensive communication campaign that meets employees where they are,” Shields says. For example, call-center workers may be less likely to see a company’s social network posts if their work is on the phone rather than on the internet, so a tabletop display in a lunchroom may work better for them.

4. Choose the right partner

Employees who don’t utilize tuition assistance have sound reasons. They worry that they won’t have time, will accumulate student debt, or that the courses won’t be relevant to their careers.


You can address these points by identifying degree programs that work well for your employees by being project-based, which connects learning to career development, or by being competency-based, which allows for more flexibility in scheduling and can accelerate the time to completion.


“When you’re able to say to employees that you have a partner that fits their schedule and won’t break their household budget,” says Shields, “the lightbulb goes off. They say, ‘Whoa, I can do it with my kids while they do their homework. I can do it at 5 a.m. I can race through the math that I’m good at and spend more time on the writing. I can use it at work right away.’ They say, ‘This is a huge opportunity for me.’”

5. Get aligned

Ultimately, says Shields, companies may not effectively use their TAPs because they haven’t aligned that budget with their overall strategy. “The most efficient way to use this benefit is to make sure it is tied directly to your talent management workforce development strategies within the company,” she says.


“Think of the thousands of dollars a company will devote to having one employee further their education and their increase their skill level. It makes perfect sense that the company would make sure the program is securely and intricately connected to other internal initiatives for developing the workforce.”


If everyone understands the dotted line between tuition assistance, an employee’s career goals, their manager’s goals for the department, and how that relates to the company’s performance, everyone involved with commit to the program more enthusiastically.

Maria Wood is a freelance business reporter, content marketing writer and editor based in New Jersey.