College for America Blog

6 Ways Companies Can Support Degree Completion for Employees


Posted In: Workforce Insight

Nov • 22 • 2016

Many colleges and universities are struggling with improving persistence and completion rates for students. But what can companies that support education for their workforce do to impact completion? They can make progress toward a degree a cornerstone of company culture, says Jaime Fall, Director of Upskill America at the Aspen Institute, an employer-led organization focused on opportunity for American workers.

On the one hand, many companies invest heavily in tuition assistance programs because they can deliver a strong return on investment. For example, an analysis of the education reimbursement program of health insurance company Cigna showed that every dollar the company spends on the program generates a $1.29 savings, according to a study by the Lumina Foundation.

The same study noted that by 2020 two-thirds of all U.S. jobs will require some form of higher education, but right now, only about 45 percent of Americans have a two-year degree or other postsecondary credential. In short, incentive is high for employers to offer tuition assistance.

On the other hand, broadening access to higher education opportunities with just financial assistance may not be enough. Studies of first-time, full-time students (i.e. “traditional” students) show that six-year graduation rates average 48.3 at public four-year universities. That’s why many colleges and universities are putting in place new kinds of wraparound supports to minimize that drop off.

One well-known example is CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) which smooths out the road to degree completion with personal advising, career counseling, tutoring, and a range of small financial interventions such as MetroCards and support buying textbooks.

The working adult students that companies are supporting with tuition assistance programs are a different population, but employers will understandably want to guard against such low graduation rates, often by partnering with institutions that understand how to support their employees.

For example, to ensure student progress, College for America uses an innovative learning coach model, as well as designing the curriculum and delivery model from the ground up particularly for the needs and schedules of working adults.

Meanwhile, employers themselves can have a big influence on persistence toward degree completion. Fall suggests several methods below. Many of them may seem like small process improvements, but at heart, he says, they are about communicating that your workplace values their degree work.

1. Remind Employees of the Program

A common misconception is that employees who want to further their education will take advantage of tuition assistance programs and that, conversely, those who don’t use tuition assistance programs don’t really want to get a degree.

Fall says that’s not accurate and that “employees really need to be reminded of the program, encouraged to take it and supported throughout.”

Employees may not realize they are eligible for certain programs, may not believe that employers really want them to take advantage of programs, or may have no idea how to get started.

Regularly reminding employees how they can use tuition assistance programs shows that your company is committed to employee development and that you value education.

2. Create Employee Development Plans

hold employees accountable for their educational goalsOne way to make sure every employee knows about and utilizes tuition assistance programs is to create an employee development plan for every employee. This should include instructions on how to access the support systems within the company.

“Some companies send a strong message on day one by requiring a personal development plan for each employee so they can see what the next steps are in their career progression and know exactly what is required of them to achieve the next steps,” Fall says. Employees at every level of the organization should know that their continuing development and pursuit of education is valued.

Once an employee development plan is in place, include it regularly in conversations with managers. Utilize support employees to clear roadblocks, and hold employees accountable for making progress toward their goal. The college you partner with can also help by making stronger connections between their work and academics.

3. Prepay Tuition

One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is forcing employees to fund their tuition out of pocket and then be reimbursed, Fall says. Coming up with the initial funds can be a huge hurdle for employees, one that stops many from moving forward from one term to the next.

Companies that are serious about supporting employee success in degree programs should consider paying the schools directly as soon as tuition comes due. In addition to making employees feel valued, it also minimizes the chances that unexpected expenses will force employees to quit before their degrees are complete.

4. Minimize Departmental Burdens

Companies should also think carefully about how money is allocated for tuition. “In some companies you have to get your manager’s approval to take a college class and then the money in many cases comes out of that manager’s budget,” Fall says. This can cause managers to subtly or not so subtly discourage employees from taking classes because it cuts into operational budgets.

“In other companies that are doing this well, the manager is just informed,” Fall says. “And then the money comes out of some sort of a central budget.” Removing the administration of tuition assistance funds from departments minimizes resistance from managers.

5. Get Managers on Board

When an employee is enrolled in school, they’re bound to have assignments, projects or other online work that needs to be done in addition to their daily job responsibilities. A manager who understands the value of a degree, says Fall, will minimize outside demands to help make school a priority.

The pay-off here is two-fold: first, it helps employees balance work and school while minimizing the natural stressors that come from doing so. Second, it shows the employee that their manager and the company as a whole values what they are trying to accomplish. This leads to higher retention and steadier progress toward completion.

6. Commit to the Program

Just offering it is not enough.The most important step a company can take is to fully commit to the program.

“A lot of employers look at it like it’s a benefit that they need to offer because their competitors offer it but they’re not really serious about it,” Fall says. “Just offering is not enough.”

To really see a return on investment for your tuition assistance program, your company has to commit to employee development as a core value. It helps to partner with colleges and universities that understand the needs of working students and are as committed to their success as you are.


This article was written for College for America by Emma Gallimore, a freelance writer with a degree in journalism from the University of Maine. She reports on trends affecting the education, business, health and technology sectors.