With Employer Help, Grad School Doesn't Have to Be a Dream Deferred

By Andrea N. Browne
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007 10:08 AM

When Bralyn Cathey, 26, graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., in 2002, he knew what lay ahead. A member of his school's ROTC program, Cathey was on his way to join the United States Navy.

Shortly after being stationed in Norfolk, Va., in January 2003, he learned about the Navy's tuition assistance program. It would cover the full cost of tuition -- and so Cathey began to plot his next move: He would pursue a longtime goal of attending graduate school.

Relocated to the Washington area in May 2006, Cathey enrolled in a full-time accelerated program at the University of Maryland-College Park's College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. In one year, he could earn a master's degree in professional studies with an emphasis on leadership, education and development -- and, Cathey expects, jump-start his career.

"I'll eventually head a [Naval] company, which is a group of new enlistees," he says, now a lieutenant. "I'll be like a mentor," he states. His course curriculum is geared toward readying him for that responsibility: He is required to teach a class twice a week and he works with students around the same age as those he'll work with in the Navy. "This program is definitely preparing me."

Many workers return to school hoping an advanced degree will give their prospects a push. Some, like Cathey, get that push at a bargain price: Their employer helps cover some or all of the costs. For recent graduates who see further education in their future, working for an employer that offers the benefit might be a smart choice.

How the Programs Work

Education benefits are very common. Nearly all of the public and private sector employers surveyed in 2006 by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) -- about 98 percent -- offer some form of education assistance.

These programs generally have clear guidelines, says IFEBP Senior Information Specialist Julie Stitch: There's usually a fixed annual dollar amount; many employers require courses to be specific to a worker's job function or industry; workers generally pay up front and are reimbursed; and most programs cover both undergraduate and graduate studies.

Many of the companies offer maximum annual dollar amounts between $5,000 and $7,000, according to the survey. Since many entry-level workers cannot afford to spend much out of pocket, they generally take one or two classes per semester.

They usually do so while working full time, explains Peter Ronza, compensation and benefits manager at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. (For more on balancing school and work, see the sidebar "A Balancing Act.")

But while reimbursement programs are common, less than 15 percent of employees who could use them actually do, according to the IFEBP survey.

Some may feel they don't have the time for work and school, says Stitch: Many younger workers juggle full and part-time jobs to help make ends meet. Others may not know the money is available or cannot afford the costs not covered by the employer. To counteract this, notes Ronza, some specifically seek out employers that offer particularly generous education packages.

Mutual Benefits

What do employers get out of giving money to aspiring grad students? A few things, says Deborah Keary, director of human resources for the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. They see the investment in workers as a means of building and rewarding loyalty; they target an increase in job performance because of the additional training workers receive; and if they are looking for "new blood" to help revitalize a company, they may be able to turn to up-and-coming workers who are ready to advance.

As a result, such programs should perhaps be seen as a trade-off of sorts. If you decide to pursue an advanced degree with the help of your employer, advises Keary, it makes sense to start with a conversation with human resources to learn about additional stipulations: Many employers require employees to remain at the company for a certain period of time after their studies are completed or, failing that, make full repayment.

And workers should also be mindful that employers may expect improved on-the-job performance from working students even before school is out, says Ronza -- perhaps taking on more challenging projects or increased knowledge sharing. These could mean additional demands on your time.

Again, however, there's a trade-off here: The new skills and experience can boost your move up the organizational ladder -- either at your own employer, Ronza notes, or the next one.

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