The Value of Tuition Assistance Is Not Just Financial, Say Working Learners
by Ruby A. Rouse
Community colleges are the institution of choice for workers seeking to upgrade their skills. Many working learners who attend community college rely on employer-funded tuition assistance programs to pay for a significant portion of their studies. Despite the importance of tuition assistance programs in supporting the ongoing training and education of the American workforce, the unique significance of this employee benefit for workers and employers is not well understood. Some crucial questions about tuition assistance merit deeper examination:
• What do working learners value most about tuition assistance? (What is the perceived value of this employer-provided benefit?)
• What is the potential of this benefit to provide strategic value for employers?
• What can employers do to make their tution-assistance programs more visible and encourage greater participation by employees?
To improve the general understanding of tuition-assistance programs for workers, employers, and educators, researchers at the University of Phoenix Research Institute conducted a study titled, Bundled Value: Working Learners’ Perceptions of Tuition Benefit Programs. The study focused on understanding the perceived value of educational benefits for participants in tuition-assistance programs.
“Despite significant financial outlay, few organizations formally measure the effectiveness or return on value of their tuition-assistance programs,” says Dr. Leslie A. Miller, PHR, executive director of the University of Phoenix Research Institute and principal researcher of the study. “Using a newly designed instrument, we demonstrated what participants value most about these employer-funded perks.”
Personal Development Ranks High
The University of Phoenix Research Institute study examined the perceived value of tuition-benefit programs for employees from three Fortune 1000 companies. Findings were based on survey responses from 6,726 current and past tuition-benefit program participants. Study participants were presented with several value statements, each describing a potential benefit of participating in a tuition-assistance program.
Employees expressed the highest level of agreement with value statements related to personal development, such as “[the program] makes me more marketable as I pursue my career goals.” Employees expressed lower levels of agreement with value statements related to recruitment and retention, such as “[the program] is a primary reason I remain employed with [my organization].”
When asked to share value comments in their own words, more than half of survey participants associated multiple values with their tuition-assistance programs. Employees commonly expressed a constellation of values, ranging from educational and career opportunities to cost savings and debt avoidance as well as character development and personal growth.
Asked to respond to 11 statements of perceived value, working learners surveyed by the University of Phoenix Research Institute agreed most strongly with these 5.
Benefits for Business
Most study participants believe that tuition assistance helps their company as well: More than 80 percent of working learners agree with the statement that tuition-assistance programs raise their company’s job-market competitiveness. Seventy-one percent agree that participation increases their loyalty to the organization. Almost the same percentage agree that participating in the tuition assistance makes them more engaged in their job and improves their workplace performance and productivity.
Workers’ high esteem for tuition assistance suggests that there may be an opportunity for employers to position their tuition-benefit programs as a strategic tool, not simply an optional benefit. After they identify knowledge gaps in their workforce, business leaders can find ways to structure tuition-assistance programs to meet their company’s education and training needs, possibly working in partnership with local community colleges.
“Participating in tuition-assistance programs boosts workers’ earning potential, deepens their industry expertise, raises their worth in the job market, and helps individuals achieve the vital personal milestone of completing a degree,” says Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, who leads the University of Phoenix Research Institute. To improve the return on this investment, she advises, organizations should consistently emphasize the multiple advantages of educational benefits to current staff, new hires, managers, and potential job candidates.
In addition, tuition assistance provides value for workers and employers in any economic environment. Companies should consider funding the benefit during strong and weakened economic conditions. “It’s during a downturn—when workers worry most about job stability and their skill sets—that they may be most eager to enroll in affordable classes,” says study co-author Dr. Debbie Ritter-Williams, Senior Research Associate with the University of Phoenix Research Institute. They’ll feel more optimistic about staying employed, she adds, “and when the economy improves, the organization will compete for new business with a more highly educated workforce.”
Ruby A. Rouse is executive director of the University of Phoenix Research Institute. For a copy of the full report or additional information, visit the University of Phoenix Research Institute website at http://www.phoenix.edu/research-institute/publications/2011/01/working-learners-perceptions-of-tuition-benefit-programs.html.