College for America Blog

How Tuition Assistance is a Powerful Lever for Your Diversity Strategy


Posted In: Workforce Insight

Dec • 5 • 2016

Corporate diversity and inclusion strategies are evolving beyond a matter of equity and social responsibility and becoming recognized as a valuable strategy for companies that want to recruit and retain the best talent. With more and more specialized jobs tightening the qualified talent market, organizations are discovering a tremendous opportunity to find and cultivate talent which historically has not been given the opportunity to perform at the level it could.

In the past, diversity and inclusions programs have been aimed at African American and women employees; now many are starting to expand their focus to include other minority groups such as Latinos and LGBTQ. While discrimination is a large factor in why these groups have traditionally been disenfranchised, it’s not the only one.

Economic inequity plays a big part in keeping diverse talent from realizing its full potential. According to a recent report from the Education Trust, there is a 14-percentage-point gap in college completion rates between underrepresented and white students. Student debt is a contributing factor, with African American students more likely to take on student debt than other populations.

Given the weight of student debt as a factor in decisions made after graduation, an early economic disadvantage can have a lasting impact on the lives of minorities. Employers seeking to develop this untapped talent would be wise to expand their economic opportunities, and tuition assistance programs can be a highly effective tool to do that.

Building an Internal Talent Pipeline

Tuition assistance programs have traditionally funded people at the highest end of the company, emphasizing leadership training, MBA programs, and senior positions.

But with a looming wave of baby boomers retiring, many companies are beginning to see the need for a well-trained pipeline inside the organization, says Lisa Christensen, who works in partnership and business development for College for America. “They want to hire from within,”she says, “but they don’t have a pipeline. The bottom level employees don’t have the skills that they need in order to advance up the ladder.”

Building a diverse pipeline of skilled frontline workers contributes to a more diverse middle management. Plus, a focus on diversity through tuition assistance can also reduce hiring costs, says Christensen. “For years, the approach has been not to worry about churn and burn, but now companies are realizing they may have high replacement costs even for low-wage employees,” she says.

Contributing to an employee’s education doesn’t just help retain that employee. It also helps foster diverse workplaces, which tend to be rated more highly by employees and have higher satisfaction rates overall.

“Companies are realizing that in order to retain and recruit really talented people, they have to put their money where their mouth is,” says Christensen. By creating an inclusive work environment, companies make themselves more attractive places to work. “People will come in, look around the room, and say this is the sort of place I can spend ten years of my life.”

Ensuring Tuition Assistance Accomplishes Its Diversity Goals

Tuition assistance programs are a powerful way for organizations to address the idea of social equity and mobility, giving middle and working class employees from all backgrounds an opportunity to earn the credentials to move into the C-suite.

To do that, says Christensen, organizations need to focus on building the skills not only for jobs that need to be filled today, but also those they imagine will need to be filled in five years.

“In some cases, the name of the prestigious college that you got your degree from may not get you as far as being able to say to someone, ‘Here are 120 skills I have mastered,’” Christensen says. “You need a workforce that has a wide range of skills so that they can be agile, they can embrace change, and they can think like leaders.”

When building a pipeline through tuition assistance programs, organizations need to choose an educational institution that has a track record of personalizing learning for students of diverse backgrounds.

An online competency-based, project-based degree program that excels in student support, when it is paired with a tuition assistance program, can enable a business and its university partner to serve many groups traditionally underrepresented in both higher education and senior management. And it can do so in a way that’s affordable to both student and employer.

For example, in the College for America associate’s degree program, our students are 77% women, 30% African-American, and 17% Hispanic; 72% are the first in their family to attend college.

Critically, 70% of our graduates earn their degrees debt-free. That’s in stark contrast to the 68% of students who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2015 with an average student loan debt of $30,000, according to The Institute for College Access and Success.

Does your organization have a pool of untapped diverse talent in your frontline workers? Providing access to critical workplace skills and higher education through tuition assistance programs is crucial for building a pipeline of upward mobility within your organization, and building a workplace that attracts and retains the best diverse talent on the market.

This article was written by Jessie Kwak, a freelance writer and novelist living in Portland, Oregon.