Tuition Reimbursement: How Serious Are You?

“We offer an excellent tuition reimbursement program, offering up to $3000 a year to employees to pay for degree programs…..”

I almost choked on my coffee when I read that.  As both a parent of two soon-to-be college students, and as a doctoral candidate myself, it’s hard to believe this is being used as a selling point by many companies.  At most institutions, $3000 will hardly pay for a class or two each year.

Now, don’t get me wrong…I’d gladly accept such assistance toward furthering my education, but it’s sort of like using the promise of a heated office in the wintertime to try and attract the best and the brightest to your company.  It’s a nice to have, but I can always wear another sweater, if necessary.

Developing employees is fairly accepted as both a positive tool for gaining organizational effectiveness and for engaging one’s employees.  Yet in many organizations, programs such as tuition reimbursement for higher education have taken a huge hit in recent years.  Indeed, many so-called leaders have ignored the value of these programs and have adopted a short-sighted and distinctly foolhardy attitude toward employees seeking further education.

Thinly veiled as “necessary” budget cuts, the funding of external education has been slashed or severely restricted in recent years.  And yet, many of these same companies still parade tuition reimbursement as one of their crowning employee benefits in recruiting efforts.  Talk about inauthenticity!

Years ago, I took a position with a midwestern Fortune 500 company known for valuing continued education.  In fact, in addition to offering to pay the IRS recommended $5250/year toward tuition, I had budgeted for me an additional $3000 annually for additional professional development and conferences, as well as $200 for professional journal subscriptions and association dues.  All told, it was a tremendous commitment to ensuring an ever strengthened cadre of professionals.

You see, an organization’s talent management competency is directly reflected in its willingness and ability to recruit, develop, and ultimately leverage and retain its talent.

Take it from me…..recruiting top talent is easy!  I’ve seen many companies that excel at selling themselves and their opportunities to potential employees.  Flashy brochures….an impressive building….and loads of empty promises are all it takes to be a leading recruiter.  Retaining, developing, and leveraging your talent is where the rubber meets the road, though, and it’s where many companies fall short.

A year after starting my new position at the company, though, I received an announcement that the company would no longer support my doctoral pursuit.  In the end, they simply felt the investment wasn’t worth it…that I would finish my degree and bolt.  Not a single conversation with me about my intentions.  Not a proposal to sign a retention agreement in exchange for helping out with my education.  Nope….the decision was final.  Done deal.  Oh, did I mention, the additional funds for professional development were also slashed to nothing within three years.

Now, you tell me, is that a good talent retention or development strategy?

The problem’s not a simple one, but organizations who fail to understand this hurdle face far greater challenges to remain relevant and vibrant competitors in their industry than an investment of several hundred thousand dollars in the most educated amongst their workforce.  So, let’s look at some of the real values of strengthening, not diminishing, your educational support programs:

  1. Enhanced employee engagement & loyalty – Face it, if you as an organization are only concerned with your own quarterly bottom line, you’ve already accepted your ultimate decline.  Investments in your employees pay long-term dividends in 1) employee engagement and loyalty, 2) more efficient and effective productivity, and 3) the adaptability of the organization.
  2. Strengthened strategic focus – In an era when any organization’s key competitive advantage (regardless of industry) is its flexibility and agility, anything you can do to further develop your workforce will give you an edge over your competitors.  And with broadened perspectives, your more educated workforce will be better able to anticipate future challenges and address current ones.  It’s a win-win!
  3. Increased critical thinking – As adult learners progress in their educational pursuits, one of the most vital competencies they develop is critical thinking.  In fact, particularly at the masters and doctoral levels, the ability to critically analyze and synthesize is paramount.
  4. Destruction of “smartest person in the room” leadership syndrome – Too many companies associate organizational level with intelligence.  When leaders believe they are in their positions because they possess more “smarts” than individual contributors, a company is in real trouble.  Yet, by supporting and actively encouraging employees at all levels to continuously pursuing advanced education, intelligence becomes expected at all levels of the organization.  Trust me…that’s incredibly healthy for any company!

The point here is this….if your solution to budgetary constraints is to slash development dollars and tuition reimbursement funds, you’d do well to reconsider your rationale.  Would you accept the status quo for your organization, or is it your responsibility as a leader to further seek out ways to grow your company?  If the latter is accurate, and if you truly embrace talent management, you will slash all other non-essentials first.

Think about it….for the cost of one executive’s annual benefit package, my former employer could have fully funded the doctoral degrees of a dozen of its brightest and most self-directed and self-driven employees (if you’ve ever known someone juggling full-time employment with part-time education, it’s an impressive feat).  Instead, they abandoned a key selling point for current and future employees.

Yet, tuition reimbursement is still being touted as a recruiting tool…..incredible, if they think that will work!

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