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Tuition Reimbursement: What You Need to Know

Carl Jones works at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., but he wants to be an astronaut.

What will his employer think?

Actually, Jones' employer not only supports his lofty ambitions, but pays for Jones to follow his star. Ball fully reimburses Jones' school expenses as he studies for a master's of science in aerospace engineering, with a focus in bioastronautics.

"They just take small amounts out of your paycheck for a number of pay periods that you designate," Jones says. "You go through the class, and once the class is finished, you have to have earned a B or better in the class in order to qualify for reimbursement."

After the necessary paperwork is filed, Ball places the refund directly into Jones's bank account.

"Since my company is basically paying for my education, it takes the financial stress off of me and allows me to further my education and my skills," Jones says.

"I get a great engineering education and a really good school that I don't have to pay for. My company gets a more seasoned employee who will stay longer. I want to give back, once my education finishes."

Many people think only big companies offer tuition-reimbursement plans, but smaller businesses also get staff into school.

While this benefit can enhance your career -- and earnings -- it's important to know the rules of tuition plans before you request reimbursement from your employer.

Many employer-sponsored programs come with strings attached. Your employer's human resources, or HR, department can provide information the tuition-reimbursement program in your workplace.

As you weigh this option, it's important to request clarification on the following topics. Think of them as the ABCDs of tuition reimbursement:

  1. 'A' is for amounts
  2. 'B' is for B grade or better
  3. 'C' is for contractual obligations
  4. 'D' is for degrees covered

'A' is for amounts

Employers won't typically reimburse full tuition without restrictions. Caps or limitations are standard. Sometimes, the established cap is a dollar amount -- for example, a lifetime cap of $10,000. In other cases, the employer may cap the number of classes for which it will provide reimbursement.

Many employers require employees to work for a certain length of time before they are eligible for reimbursement. After all, the employer doesn't want to waste dollars on short-timers. Be sure to ask your employer what's covered, and for whom.

The Holiday World & Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus, Ind. -- a theme park -- reimburses employees with at least two years of employment, to the tune of up to $1,500 of annual undergraduate or graduate tuition.

If you have at least three years of employment, the limit jumps to $2,500 each year for undergraduate and $3,000 for graduate expenses.

Some businesses cover books and fees, while others don't. Holiday World pays up to $100 in books and fees.

'B' is for B grade or better

Many employers reimburse according to the grade you earn. Jones says Ball Aerospace and Technologies reimburses expenses for students who have earned a B or better.

Other companies may offer tiered reimbursement. For example, you may be reimbursed 100 percent for an A, 75 percent for a B and 50 percent for a C.

It's a rare employer that forks over dough for an F.

In order to receive your money, you'll typically need to present proof of completion, your grade and a receipt that proves you paid out-of-pocket.

That's how it works at StoreyManseau, a small marketing firm based in Concord, N.H.

"We covered Web site design for a graphic designer on our staff," says Laurie Storey-Manseau, the firm's founder. "I had worked at companies (much larger than us) before starting StoreyManseau, and had this as a benefit. It helped pay for part of my master's degree and helped advance my career."

Jones says it's important to remember your responsibility for making sure you receive reimbursement.

"It is up to the individual employee to fill out the forms and present everything for reimbursement," says Jones of his experience with Ball Aerospace and Technologies.

"Otherwise, it's your money lost."

'C' is for contractual obligations

Look out for the fine print. Some employers require you to commit to staying with the company for a certain number of years after you've finished your education.

Moving on before fulfilling the commitment may require you to pay back all educational assistance.

At Holiday World, tuition reimbursement is offered with the understanding that the participating employee will use new skills to build the current business, not to leave for another job.

So, any Holiday World employee who leaves or resigns within two years of receiving tuition reimbursement must repay tuition.

Ask the HR department what happens if you leave before your time's up. Do you repay the full amount or a percentage?

Also ask about other rules. For example, if you're expected to stay on for one year -- in exchange for class coverage -- when does the clock start on fulfilling that year-long requirement?

Does it begin within a year of filing paperwork, within a year of the first class day or within a year of receiving reimbursement money?

'D' is for degrees covered

Chat with your manager about which classes or what degree you'd like to pursue, and how your educational goals fit in with your current or future position.

Many people assume that some classes won't meet their employer's requirements, but that's not necessarily so, says Jamie C. Samans of Arlington, Va.

Samans has benefited from his employer's generous tuition program for almost three years.

"If underwater basket weaving 210 -- or philosophy or music appreciation -- meets a distribution requirement for a degree program, you'll get the approval," says Samans, who recommends documenting how the class fulfills the curriculum.

Tips for convincing your employer

Businesses of all sizes offer tuition reimbursement. But some may need a little convincing before signing off on your class schedule.

Don't give up -- it's possible to convince your employer that compensating for classes will pay off in the long term. Especially if you do everything right.

For example, one employee's homework really paid off at Didit.com, a search engine optimization company based in New York.

"He talked with his manager first, then brought the proposal forward to HR," says Heidi Zafran, human resources director for Didit.com. "He was the right person at the right time."

The employee's 15-page proposal included an outline of his degree program, the cost, how it would benefit him professionally and how the degree would benefit the company, Zafran says.

The last aspect is particularly important, says Alison Buckley, director of business development for executive education programs at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Buckley helps candidates seeking a master's of business administration to pitch reimbursement programs to employers.

Align your educational goals with the corporate culture, Buckley says, and show direct, specific benefits whenever possible.

"It's a great exercise in negotiation," she says.

The admissions officer or college recruiter can guide you. University specialists can act as a sounding board and provide informal consulting about how to approach organizations.

If your employer approves your request, make sure to get it in writing, Buckley says.

She says one student enrolled at her school had a verbal agreement with his employer to attend class during work hours. But when the company reorganized, the employee's new manager didn't want to honor the previous agreement.

Skipping reimbursement

Some employees may decide the rules associated with an employer's tuition reimbursement program are too prohibitive. Instead, they may opt to pay for tuition themselves.

Samans says he's known people who decline employer-paid education because they don't want to be obligated to stay with their company and fear they will have to repay tuition if they leave for a new job.

Samans believes such worries are misplaced.

"How good can an offer be if you're not even getting enough to offset a $3,000 tuition debt?" he asks.

Other employees may keep quiet about their education plans because they'd like to get a degree in something completely unrelated to their current field.

For example, maybe you've been a heating, air conditioning and refrigeration technician, but are now more interested in getting into intellectual property law. Or vice versa. Revealing your class list tells the boss that you're looking for a new career.

Some workplaces don't necessarily see more education as a benefit. Sharing your aspirations or proposing reimbursement can make you stick out like a sore scholar if you work with managers who pride themselves on their self-made status.

Buckley says some employees worry that co-workers or managers will think you have divided loyalties. They worry that the appearance -- not necessarily the reality -- of splitting time and attention might hurt their chances at promotion.

Because of these potential minefields, the decision to apply for a tuition-reimbursement program often comes down to the relationship the employee has with a manager and employer.

If revealing enrollment hurts your short-term goals at your workplace, you may want to self-pay and take advantage of the government's tax break for college courses.

But in an honest environment that promotes achievement -- personally and organizationally -- you'll get a gold star when you receive reimbursement.

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