College for America Blog

What’s the real value of your tuition assistance program?


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Posted In: CFA News, Students

Nov • 14 • 2014

There are two kinds of business costs: those that contribute meaningfully to the bottom line, and those that an organization takes on “because we should”—or “because we have to.”

For too long, and in too many cases, tuition assistance programs have been considered the latter. “Our peer companies do it.” “Our competitor are offering one.” “We think employees like it.” “It helps us get in that ranking of the best companies to work for in our area.” All of these statements are usually true, and touch on legitimate factors in driving budget decisions. But the modern organization demands more rigor when evaluating practically all business investments, whether they’re supply chain projects, new job postings, or capital expenditures. And when you consider that our recent workforce strategies survey shows that roughly three in four employers offer a tuition assistance program today, it’s about time that tuition assistance programs were put under same the microscope.

Here at College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, our goal is to bridge the divide between what the labor market needs and what higher education institutions provide. So this past year, we hired an outside research company to ask 400 business leaders at medium and large companies to tell us their top workforce challenges in terms of their overall company strategy.

The top answers were clear:

  • 94 percent of business leaders cite the need to build talent and leadership
  • 87 percent raise concerns over employees missing skills for promotion

When we partner with an employer, we expect they will need to know how the tuition assistance they are spending on their employees education impacts these central workforce challenges and opportunities.

Here’s the data on our end.

Of our first year of associate’s degree graduates at College for America:

  • More than half report getting a promotion or increased responsibilities at work
  • Seventy percent say they now have new career goals
  • Twenty of the 30 have gone on to enroll in a bachelor’s program
  • Nine in 10 are still with the same employer

A few caveats are important here: while we’re part of the 80-year-old nonprofit, Southern New Hampshire University, the competency-based College for America program has only been in full force for a little over a year. Our self-paced model allows students (like the graduates mentioned above) to move through the degree faster than the typical two-year timeline of a traditional associate’s degree. Most of our first students are still working through the program. So, the numbers above represent a relatively small sample: 30 students who graduated within a year of the program’s operational launch. In total, we’ve enrolled well over 1,000 students since launch; the vast majority of which are still mid-program.

Regardless of the sample size, the data is remarkable.  For an investment of just $2,500 per employee per year (this tuition figure is specific to College for America), an employer can reasonably expect to meaningfully address the three most common workforce challenges: needing to build talent and leadership, closing the gap in promotable skills, and retaining high-performing or promising employees. Not only are we finally putting data to the tuition assistance program decisions and budget impact, but the data is encouraging.

While the numbers themselves speak volumes, we could write a whole separate blog post (or series) about why our graduates are able to consistently use their work at College for America to take on new responsibilities and ambitions in the workplace. In short, it’s because of three things:

  • An educational degree program that revolves around competencies instead of credit hours
  • Project-based, real-world learning instead of lectures and finals
  • A nonprofit college that is specifically geared towards bridging the gap between employers and academia

We build our programs on these fundamental values, even though it’s often the “sticker price” that attracts a lot of media interest at College for America (for example, a Businessweek headline trumpeted, “The $10,000 Bachelor’s Degree Arrives”). The affordable tuition grabs attention, but for most of the employers we work with, it’s ultimately the outcomes—the applicability of the program for their employees—that is the most critical factor in their decision to partner with us. It’s great to start having some data to help inform those decisions and show what a tuition assistance program can really do.