Perspectives from Graduate Students in Professional and Technical Writing at Northern Arizona University
At Northern Arizona University (NAU), our online graduate program in professional and technical writing attracts students throughout the United States and overseas. Like other graduate programs, many of our students pursue their degrees while simultaneously employed in full-time positions. And various forms of employer-provided educational assistance permit many of our students to pursue an advanced degree.
As faculty, we wanted to explore the perceptions and experiences that students, who rely on tuition assistance, were having in our program. So we invited a few volunteers to sit down with us and describe what their employer’s educational support has meant to them. Interviews with two students in our program led to us into some of the primary values and tensions that define this type of benefit for students and their employers.
Brief Overview: The State of Employer-Provided Educational Assistance
Employer based tuition benefits dropped during and after the 2008 recession. But, as of 2014, the labor market started to turn and employers began to invest in tuition assistance programs again. At that time, the focus was on “rejuvenating” tuition reimbursement programs. When the labor market is considered healthy, more employers tend to recognize the value of offering this type of benefit, including increased loyalty from employees, helping employees realize their personal goals, and “creating a pool of qualified staff to contribute to the business.” Some businesses call this “talent investment” and use it as a means of creating a more specialized and knowledgeable work force.
Most organizations view tuition assistance benefits as critical for attracting the best pool of candidates for new hiring, for increasing the retention of current employees, and as a means of promoting employees who take advantage of the benefit. As university costs grow, many companies find that this is a critical benefit for attracting millennials. Increasingly, this also includes attracting more millennials through the expanding use of tuition payback programs.
Rigorous studies are rare, but research does demonstrate that tuition assistance programs provide good value for industry and businesses with a big return on investment (ROI). A recent (2016) Cigna, Lumina Foundation, and Accenture study, for example, measured a $1.29 ROI for every dollar spent in their own Education Reimbursement Program (ERP). In that two-year (2012-2014) study, they also calculated that employees who participated in their ERP were 10% more likely to be promoted and 8% more likely to stay at the company. Still, such programs are not without some common risks.
Increased employee mobility. Although such programs have been shown to increase loyalty in employees, there is an obvious risk that a new degree may prompt some employees to compete for a new, or better job. An increased sense of loyalty may alleviate some of this, but as a practical approach to limiting the risk, many businesses require employees to agree to pay back some or all of the tuition covered if an employee leaves the company within a specified timeframe. And the upside for a business is that such agreements can help lower turnover.
Degree-work congruity. Another common risk comes from perceived incongruities between how courses, or degrees may, or may not correspond to an employee’s position. Some businesses try to create congruity by requiring employees to demonstrate that they are pursuing a degree related to their current employment. Some companies interview their employees, or even ask them to justify each course selection. Others offer more employee-centered programs support any courses that will improve an employee’s, “ability to think, make decisions or just keep current.”
What Employer-Supported Tuition Looks Like for Two NAU Professional Writing Students
Employer-supported tuition plays an important role in funding higher education generally and for the enrollment of our online Professional Writing program specifically. We appreciate any such programs that allow us to recruit students who have the experience necessary to add business and industry context to our program. Here are two brief profiles of students and what employer-based tuition support has meant to them:
While studying for her MA in Professional Writing online at NAU, Student #1 (S1) works full-time as a director of outreach and education at a state university in Arizona. We have always known that our students are busy, but S1 is a perfect example of this as a new mother, a full-time employee, and a graduate student. Through an Educational Assistance Plan (EAP), she has up to $5,250 of untaxed tuition coverage per calendar year. When costs go over that amount, that tuition is added to her paycheck as taxable income, but her additional tuition costs are still covered through her benefits. As a result, between her full-time salary and the EAP, she is able to earn her degree debt free.
The often unclear application process can prevent many people from taking advantage of tuition support programs. But, for S1, the process for applying for assistance was pretty straightforward. Despite having to submit, “a form before each semester that detailed my participation in the semester,” S1 benefits from a progressive tuition assistance program:
“Although my degree is not directly relevant to my position, I have already been able to use a number of projects and learned knowledge in my position. For example, I took a grant writing class and wrote a grant that I am submitting to request funding for a project I am working on.”
S1’s experience particularly reinforces the idea that employer-based tuition benefits do not need to support a degree that is immediately congruous to an employee’s current position to, nevertheless, see direct workplace benefits and outcomes. Against a list of similar education-work outcomes, S1 had a broader view of what her Master’s degree in professional and technical writing means for her career. As she put it:
“My career is based in a very challenging and competitive environment. It is important that my skills are continually evolving so that I can remain relevant … [for example] I took “Internet for Educators” and from that class I learned about a wide variety of digital tools that I have applied to my [current] position.”
Even better, for her employer, S1 was very clear that she has a, “huge sense of loyalty” based on what the tuition-assistance has meant for her and her family. Citing related tuition assistance for her husband’s degree, she also plans to stay with the university until her young child can, hopefully, take advantage of the tuition reduction afforded to the children of university employees.
Tuition benefits played a clear and significant part in S1’s life. And this benefit has significantly influenced her positive views and her long-term goal to stay at the university. Citing the graduate courses that have already helped her diversify her skills, she looks forward to being able to compete for new positions with her current employer. As she put it:
“There are also many career opportunities available … I hope to pursue [a position] as the director of future grant-funded STEM education projects. This may take me to different departments across campus and my communication skills must be top-notch.”
In general terms, S1 recognizes tuition assistance as a critical component in the capacity for individuals to succeed in life and as employees working within an organization. According to S1:
“It is essential to support employees’ education because the world is always evolving and by encouraging employees to continue their education you’re encouraging them to enhance their own evolution so that they can keep up with or surpass expectations.”
S1 has a very positive view of the future, due primarily to her initiative and work ethic. But, she fully appreciates how tuition-assistance has made access to an advanced degree and thus more opportunities through her current employer possible.
While studying for her MA in Professional Writing online at NAU, S2 is a senior analyst at a major U.S. bank. She has been with the bank for over nine years. And when she first found about the bank’s tuition reimbursement program, she had, “no intention of completing a Master’s degree.” But, the more she thought about it, the more she saw it as a career opportunity. Two years of added study for an advanced degree didn’t seem like much, particularly because it could be useful for an organization to have an employee well versed in writing policy and procedure documents. And she was also proud of the fact that she would be the first in her family to earn a college degree including a Master’s degree.
Her employer covers her tuition and books as part of her benefit package. But, she regularly encounters a problem:
“I had to have a conversation with my manager and gain approval prior to enrolling in classes. The difficulty is the reimbursement part. The company uses an outside vendor and they make it impossible to get reimbursement. They always deny the initial reimbursement request.”
For her, the long and difficult reimbursement process is a fight that makes her feel as if she was “a criminal stealing company funds in what is rightfully mine as a benefit.” In fact, she knows other employees who have decided not to take advantage of the benefit because they know the reimbursement process is, “such a headache.”
Worse, S2 no longer believes that her advanced degree will lead to any new opportunities with her current employer. After 9+ years with the bank, she does not believe that advanced degrees or qualifications are connected to potential advancement in the organization. In fact, she views advancement as linked much more to politics and favoritism. At this point, she feels “stuck” in her current position as a senior analyst. As she put it, “my plan is to quit and find other employment.”
But, part of her calculation corresponds to the fact she has to return two years of service at the company after graduation, or she will have to pay back some, or all of the tuition covered. The bank’s tuition support agreement prorates via six-month increments. So, if she were to leave right after graduation, she would have to pay back 100% of the tuition covered. Or she would have to pay back 75% of the tuition covered if she were to leave six months after graduating (50% after a year, etc.). Nevertheless, she is, “okay” with leaving if she finds the right job, rather than feeling as though she were “forced to stay” until the time to satisfy the bank’s tuition contract requirements has passed.
Despite the fact that she has had tuition support through her employer, S2 has a negative view of her future with the organization. She sees no connection between work on her advanced degree and future potential in the bank. The tuition-agreement adds to her sense of being “stuck,” in that it might help prevent her from leaving, for now, but mostly for negative reasons. S2 has a notable title and nearly a decade with the bank, but she is anxious to leave a work culture that doesn’t support a path for future growth. And, somewhat counter-intuitively, tuition support actually compounds the stress she feels with her current employer.
It is impossible to draw broad conclusions from just two student profiles, but these two student experiences clearly demonstrate how employers’ tuition support can lead to very different outcomes. Many variables including some connected to tuition assistance factor into an individual employee’s sense of satisfaction with a job and their view of the future within an organization.
These profiles place more focus on the relative connection between employees who are using tuition-support to pursue an advanced degree, and their view of if, or how such a degree could lead to potential growth within the organization. Further research may likely show that employees who have the ambition to take advantage of such tuition support feel deeply that their work should be connected to future potential within an organization. If employees do feel this, tuition benefits likely contain a great deal of perceived and real value for both the employee and employer over the short and long-term. If employees do not feel this, such tuition benefits may actually act to compound problems that they have with an organization and how they view their future within an organization.
As faculty in the Professional Writing program at NAU, we benefit everyday from the students who study with us while employed in industry and business. They enrich our program. This small investigation has given us a better sense of what values, tensions, and experiences that our employed graduate students are having as they navigate the complex interconnections between their employers, their work with us, and their careers.