ABCDs of tuition reimbursement

"He talked with his manager first, then brought the proposal forward to HR," says Heidi Zafran, human resources director for "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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