Four Steps to Using Your Employer's Tuition Assistance Program Part 2

The Second Step: Signing Up

According to the latest Benefits USA study from Compdata, the number of employers offering tuition reimbursement programs has been increasing in the past years. There’s a chance that if in the past your employer didn’t offer a tuition reimbursement plan, they do so now. In fact, only 35 percent of employers offered tuition reimbursement to all their employees in 2009, but 45 percent did so in 2010 and 52 percent offered it in 2011.2

Once you’ve determined whether or not your employer does offer an educational tuition benefit, and you’ve determined what does and does not qualify for reimbursement, you’re ready to take the next step. Keep in mind, some employers may require that the courses you take be directly related to your job; others allow any general college credit-bearing courses; others still may require only business related courses. It depends on your employer and their policy. Be informed before signing up for a course of study.

In some cases, your employer might work with approved college course providers to administer their employer sponsored educational program. You will want to know who these educational partners are and sign-up for courses through your employer’s providers of choice. Be sure to pay attention if you need to sign-up through your employer, or through a specific website, or if you can go to the college course provider directly. Most likely, you will need to notify and sign up for your employer’s tuition reimbursement program first before you enroll at any institution of higher learning. Don’t assume that any college course you take will be reimbursed -- you’ll want to verify, before you pay tuition, that the courses you are taking are eligible for reimbursement by your employer.

Furthermore, you may be required to talk with your supervisor before taking advantage of your employer’s tuition assistance program. Some employers require a sign-off on a form from a supervisor. In that case, he or she may be the one to determine if the courses are job-related and appropriate for your career path at that company, and therefore eligible for reimbursement.

The Third Step: Maximizing your Benefits

Once you’ve gained approval for your educational plan from your employer, you’ll want to maximize these benefits. You’ll want to know if the courses you are taking are eligible for college credit, and if so, will they be eligible for transferring to another institution should your educational needs expand. Investing in college courses that let you transfer your credits, such as those that are ACE-reviewed and recommended, can help you maximize your educational benefit.

For example, you can enroll in an online college course provider like StraighterLine, where the cost of taking ACE-reviewed and recommended distance learning courses, and earning college credit equivalent to the first year of college is only $999 dollars total for up to 10 courses.3 Furthermore, you can transfer these credits to StraighterLine’s partner colleges such as Western Governors University, Excelsior College, Albany State University, Capella University, University of Phoenix, or the more than 1200 other colleges that recognize ACE credit, in order to complete your degree.

If you do decide to take advantage of your employer’s assistance program, you will need top pay attention to the fine print. There is a list of services and terms you can use -- and those you cannot use -- your educational benefits for. According to the IRS, tax-free educational assistance benefits include payments for tuition, fees and similar expenses, books, supplies, and equipment. The payments may be for either undergraduate- or graduate-level courses. The payments do not have to be for work-related courses (though the actual policy will depend on your employer).

2 Human Resource Executive Online, Back To School, 12/1/2011, p.1.