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Employee tuition reimbursement: How to make the most of tuition benefits

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If you’re planning on working while attending school, there’s a chance you won’t have to pay full price. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement up to a certain dollar amount, which means that they’ll give you money for your tuition costs after you’ve completed a course. Not all companies offer this, and those that do have specific details about how to qualify, but it’s worth asking your HR department about your options.

What is employee tuition reimbursement?

Employee tuition reimbursement is when a company pays for an employee’s tuition costs, reimbursing them after the employee has already paid for those credits.

Many employers have specific guidelines for which types of courses are eligible for tuition reimbursement. For instance, some employers may require that courses serve as continuing education or a pathway for a degree in the field or industry the employee currently works in.

What are the benefits of tuition reimbursement?

Tuition reimbursement is a win-win for companies and workers. Employers get to invest in employees’ education, which can get and retain talent and lower turnover, and employees get to attend college for free or at a steep discount. Getting certified or completing a degree in your desired field could also boost your pay and create a path upward in an industry you want to stay in.

Additionally, tuition reimbursement comes with tax benefits for the employer and the employee: Each year, up to $5,250 of these expenses per employee is tax deductible. As a result, many employers cap tuition reimbursement benefits at $5,250.

How does tuition reimbursement work?

In most cases, tuition reimbursement works as it sounds: A company reimburses a worker for classes after the employee has paid for the course. As the student, you’ll need to pay for your tuition and fees upfront. Once the semester or your course is complete, you’ll send a receipt to your employer, and your employer will send a full or partial payment to you. However, the logistics of this process depend on the company, so speak to your HR department before registering for classes to ensure that you know what to expect in advance.

What are the requirements for tuition reimbursement?

Each company has its own rules for tuition reimbursement. For instance, some programs will reimburse you only if you attend certain colleges or universities, while others will send a payment for specific courses related to your job function. Others might cover your full course load, and some might even cover books and supplies.

Additionally, there may be stipulations around your employment at the company. For one, you may need to have some tenure with your employer to qualify at all. And if you leave the company shortly after receiving the tuition reimbursement, you may be required to pay back a portion of that reimbursement.

Does tuition reimbursement affect financial aid?

Even though your employer is covering some tuition costs, you might still want to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Most employer tuition reimbursement programs don’t cover the full cost of attendance, so you may need to rely on financial aid through scholarships, grants and, in some cases, student loans.

Even though a portion of tuition reimbursement is not considered taxable income, it could count as gift aid on your FAFSA; this could lessen how much you receive in need-based aid. If you’re planning to use a combination of financial aid and tuition reimbursement from your employer, talk to your school about how to qualify for and receive both.

How to request employee tuition reimbursement

If you’re interested in going back to school, the first thing to do is ask your HR department if a tuition reimbursement program exists. If one doesn’t, you might be the one to help develop and facilitate a program.

If your job already has tuition reimbursement, talk to HR about enrolling in the program. Some companies might request that employees work at the company for a set amount of months or years before taking advantage of this benefit, so you’ll need to make sure that you qualify.

Read your policy thoroughly to ensure that you understand everything the plan entails before enrolling. For instance, if you’re taking a course that your employer doesn’t cover, you’ll need to prepare to pay for that course out of pocket. You should also find out when you can expect reimbursement for your classes and how that reimbursement will be paid — whether in a one-time payment or in installments.

What happens to your tuition reimbursement if you leave the company?

If you plan to leave the company for another job shortly after completing your courses, you might have to pay back what the company paid you for tuition. You’ll need to review your tuition reimbursement terms and the contract you signed with your employer to see the fine details. Some might require you to stay with the company for a set amount of months or years upon course completion.

The exception here is if you are laid off from the company. In this case, you likely won’t have to repay your tuition benefit.

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Written by
Dori Zinn
Contributing writer
Dori Zinn has been a personal finance journalist for more than a decade. Aside from her work for Bankrate, her bylines have appeared on CNET, Yahoo Finance, MSN Money, Wirecutter, Quartz, Inc. and more. She loves helping people learn about money, specializing in topics like investing, real estate, borrowing money and financial literacy.
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