Getting Your Employer to Pay for Your Online Master’s Degree

An online master’s degree doesn’t just benefit you—it can benefit your employer, too. Discover the most effective strategies to get your company to finance your master’s degree and get expert advice for making your case.

Employer Tuition Assistance

You’re eager to climb the career ladder. You feel confident that you can benefit your company in a more advanced role, but you’re lacking some of the hard skills needed to move up. Deciding to pursue a master’s degree can not only equip you with the skills necessary to level up, but it can also be a big advantage to your company. In fact, your company may even be willing to help you cover the cost.

A 2017 study found that 92% of U.S. companies offer some form of tuition reimbursement or tuition assistance to employees. That means it’s a whole lot more likely than you probably thought that your company will back you on your journey to higher education. Even if your company doesn’t currently offer a tuition assistance program, there’s hope. Learn how you can approach the topic of tuition assistance with your employer, get advice on making your case, and hear from an expert who can help point you in the right direction on the road to an online master’s degree.

Why Would an Employer Help Cover the Cost of a Master’s Degree?

Investing in an employee’s advanced education offers myriad benefits to businesses and employees alike. While your first thought may be related to the increased skills that you’ll utilize in your job, tuition assistance programs can provide other benefits you may not have thought of yet.

  • Benefit #1: Tax savings

    One of the most direct benefits to employers who provide tuition assistance or reimbursement is their ability to deduct the money given to an employee when the company files its taxes. Employers providing reimbursement can offer up to $5,250 per year and write off 100% of that amount from FICA and FUCA payroll taxes. Investing in employees’ master’s degrees can help save companies thousands of dollars each year.

  • Benefit #2: Employee recruitment

    Suppose you’re reviewing several job offers and deciding which one to accept. They all offer similar salaries and benefits, but one of the offers includes a tuition assistance program. If you are considering pursuing a master’s degree now or in the future, picking the employer offering tuition support only makes sense. In this way, companies that provide this benefit attract top-tier talent, the types of employees who are thinking about ways to grow their expertise throughout their careers.

  • Benefit #3: Employee loyalty and retention

    Employers who take good care of those who work for them are far more likely to have loyal employees. A study by EdAssist found that 80% of employees said tuition assistance programs made them more likely to stay with the same employer, and 85% said these programs had a direct impact on their job satisfaction. As this data shows, these programs are effective at retaining employees, and the programs cost less than some other types of added benefits.

  • Benefit #4: Company success

    Companies that encourage and enable their employees to continue their educations at the master’s level reap the benefits of these pursuits. Every employee that undertakes graduate education brings their newly found knowledge and skills to the organization every day, making the company better and more successful in the process. A staff with master’s degrees naturally has more knowledge than a staff with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

  • Benefit #5: Targeted Learning

    When employers offer tuition assistance, they have a say in how the funding is used. By establishing requirements about the types of degrees an employee can pursue—based on the department and its needs—a company can ensure that the advanced knowledge employees gain directly correlates to the work they do.

How it Works: FAQs on Employer Tuition Reimbursement & Assistance

Understanding the ins and outs of both employer tuition reimbursement and tuition assistance is key to making the most of this benefit. While every employer may have slightly different rules and expectations, having a general understanding of the process can help as you prepare to ask for this benefit and advocate for yourself. Get answers to some of the most common questions about the process.

What is the difference between employer tuition assistance and employer tuition reimbursement?

If you do a little research, you will likely come across both tuition assistance and tuition reimbursement programs, and it’s important to understand how they differ. If your employer offers tuition assistance, this means they will make direct payments to your college or university. If your employer offers tuition reimbursement, this means you will pay for your courses up front and your employer will provide a set amount of money as a reimbursement once you meet certain requirements.

How much will my employer cover?

The amount of funding your employer provides depends on where you work. As discussed earlier, companies can write off up to $5,250 per year in payroll taxes, but that doesn’t mean they cannot provide more funding. Some companies set their caps by percentage of overall tuition costs, while others offer a flat fee. If you’re unsure how your company handles this, email your HR representative to ask for clarification.

Are nontuition expenses included?

While every company decides the answer to this question, typically they will pay for eligible expenses directly related to the degree. For instance, an employer is more likely to cover textbooks, learning fees, and required supplies and equipment than to cover a laptop, as the laptop provides use to you beyond the degree program. If your employer doesn’t already provide a list of approved educational expenses, ask for a list in writing before agreeing to the terms.

Which colleges can I attend?

As with other aspects of an employer-supported master’s degree, the answer to this question depends on your employer. Some companies have relationships with specific colleges that offer tuition discounts for employees. Others allow you to choose from schools that offer programs closely aligned to your career. Smaller companies tend to allow more flexibility, while larger corporations often have academic contracts with specific schools.

What courses or degree programs will my employer assist with?

Every company sets its own rules around what degrees or courses can be covered with tuition assistance or reimbursement, but the general rule is that it must somehow benefit the company. Most also exclude career-change situations. For instance, if you currently work in the accounting department, your employer may cover a master’s in accountancy but is less likely to pay tuition for a master’s in history. That said, some large companies may offer 100% tuition coverage regardless of the subject you choose.

What about my GPA?

Your GPA serves as an indicator of how well you’re learning the material. Some companies may make your tuition support contingent on maintaining a certain GPA, so make sure you understand the specifics.

I’ve only been working with my company for a few months. Am I eligible for tuition benefits?

Like other employee benefits, tuition benefits likely won’t kick in immediately. You’ll need to ask your supervisor or HR manager about the specifics, but you will probably need to be employed for three to six months before using this benefit.

Am I required to stay with my company for a certain amount of time after graduation?

How long you’ll be required to stay after graduating also will be determined by your employer; most expect you to be at the company for at least two years after graduating. This helps ensure that the organization benefits from the knowledge you gain.

If my employer offers tuition reimbursement, when do I start getting that reimbursement?

The timeline for receiving funds can vary substantially. Some employers reimburse you upon receipt of course enrollment, while others wait until after you finish the course or even after the semester or year ends. This can greatly affect how much money you need to have on hand to pay for courses up front, so make sure you get the timeline in writing before starting your master’s degree.

What if I drop out?

Employers have rules for handling what happens if an employee drops out of a program before graduating. Some may require you to repay the tuition assistance already provided; others may still require you to stay at the company for a set amount of time, even if you didn’t graduate. Again, make sure you understand all program rules before you start, and don’t make any assumptions about how the tuition program will work.

Making Your Case: How to Talk to Your Employer About Tuition Assistance

Approaching your employer about providing tuition assistance can feel nerve-racking. Still, there are steps you can take to ensure professionalism throughout and demonstrate that you’ve thought the whole process out thoroughly. Here are some ideas for getting started:

  • Research the master’s programs you’re interested in

    Before speaking to your supervisor about the potential for your company to cover a portion of your tuition, you need to have a comprehensive plan in place. Which master’s degree do you want to pursue, and how does it contribute to your goals and your company’s mission? Are there master’s degree programs available that allow you to keep working full-time while enrolled? If the degree requires an internship, can you still meet the requirements of your job? Answering all these questions will help you create a proposal that shows you’ve thought about the ins and outs of going back to school. When preparing for a meeting with your manager or HR department, create a short list of prospective schools and programs and highlight the benefits of each.

  • Approach your employer in writing first

    To ensure you clearly communicate your interest in pursuing a master’s degree with employer tuition reimbursement, it’s best to first approach your supervisor in writing. Draft an email or letter that succinctly and logically lays out the degree you want to pursue, the schools you’re considering, and several reasons you believe that undertaking the degree will benefit the company. You can also include tuition estimates for several programs, a discussion of how being a student would (or would not) affect your work, and your career goals after finishing the degree. Putting all of this in writing ensures you have a record of your request and helps eliminate any confusion about what you’re proposing.

  • Set up a meeting and come prepared

    After sending an email and giving your supervisor time to review your request, set up a face-to-face appointment and figure out what you want to get out of the meeting. Be sure to clarify any unknowns and lay out any questions that require answers before you move forward. Some of the questions worth asking include:

    • How much funding can I expect in terms of assistance or reimbursement?
    • Does the organization currently partner with any colleges or universities that provide discounted tuition or special tuition rates?
    • How will funding be supplied? Is the reimbursement paid up-front or after I complete the course or program?
    • How long do I need to work for the company before qualifying for this benefit?
    • What is the company policy on how long I have to stay with the organization after receiving my degree?
    • What happens if I leave the company before I finish my degree or before I otherwise meet the terms of the benefit?
    • What other requirements and rules do I need to know about? Are these policies available in writing?
  • Present your pitch and sell yourself

    Even though employer tuition reimbursement presents a win-win situation for both you and your company, you still need to be prepared to sell yourself in the meeting with your supervisor. Some of the benefits that you should definitely cover in your pitch include:

    • The ability to write up to $5,250 per year off in payroll taxes
    • The new skills, knowledge, and perspectives you will bring to the company after completing a master’s degree
    • The extended commitment to working for the company a set number of years after graduating
    • Your ability to teach your team what you learn in the degree, thereby updating everyone’s skills in your department
    • The specific courses you will take and how they relate to your work
    • A discussion of the time requirements of the degree and how it will fit into your work schedule

Expert Advice on Getting Your Employer to Help Pay for Your Master’s Degree

Nicole Anderson is the owner and CEO of MEND, a human resources solutions firm based in West Palm Beach, Florida. She is knowledgeable on employment law across the United States and Canada. Nicole received a Bachelor of Business Administration in human resources management from American InterContinental University in Weston, Florida. She is currently writing her first book about the future of human resources, revealing her thoughts on why HR needs to be more business-minded, why HR managers must work with leaders to develop bottom-line strategies, and how effective HR brings value to companies rather than just being policy makers and enforcers.

Q. If a company doesn’t specifically list tuition reimbursement/assistance in its benefits package, how can employees approach the conversation?

A: The first thing an employee should do is look at the company culture. What are the core values and mission of the organization? Does the company have growth in its core values, and do you see a succession planning system? If so, employees can go to the employer and let them know that the employees would like to grow within the organization and need help in the form of tuition reimbursement or tuition assistance to do so. Show the employer the return on investment for tuition reimbursement. If the company does not have growth or core values listed, do your research on how the overall success of the company could increase by changing the core values and investing in growth opportunities. In each case, the employee needs to be educated to answer questions about the benefits.

Q. What do you look for when reviewing and assessing requests for tuition assistance?

A: These are some of the vital questions I ask myself when I review a tuition assistance request:

  • Does the request align with the overall goals of the organization?
  • Does the education align with the business? Meaning, if the company is a real estate firm is the employee seeking reimbursement for real estate-related education?
  • Has the employee performed well in their current role?
  • How long has the employee been with the company?
  • Has the employee exhibited characteristics that match the company’s core values? For example: team player, innovative, emotionally mature

Q. What should employees include in their pitches?

A: Materials should include facts and data backing why and how the investment will benefit the company, why and how the employee is committed to the employer long term, and what other leaders in the company have to say about the employee’s continued education plan.

Q. What’s the biggest mistake you see employees making when considering this route?

A: Using the tuition reimbursement for something unrelated to their career or the company—this can ruin the program for everyone. Also, when employees are not prepared to speak on how the company and other employees benefit from the course of study that the employee is proposing, it suggests that the employee hasn’t thought through the decision. Too often employees tend to focus on the benefits to themselves only. Lastly, once a tuition assistance program is approved, if no one uses it the company will drop the program.

Q. What advice would you give to those who want to take advantage of tuition assistance/reimbursement?

A: These are my main recommendations:

  • Plan out the courses, program, or seminars you want to take for each year.
  • Be sure to find a master’s degree that elevates your career.
  • Share your success with tuition reimbursement with other employees so they can take advantage of it as well.
  • If you are a leader who has taken advantage of a program, encourage your employees to do the same.

Resources

Tax Benefits for Education: Information Center
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides this resource hub to help you and your employer learn how tuition reimbursement and assistance works in terms of taxes.

How to Use–and Ask For–Employer Tuition Reimbursement
Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education offers these helpful tips for getting your master’s degree covered.

Designing and Managing Educational Assistance Programs
The Society for Human Resources Management takes a look at what makes for a top-tier educational assistance program.

Tuition Reimbursement Programs: Why and How to Take Advantage of Your Employee Benefit
Northeastern University offers practical and actionable advice on how to make the most of this employee benefit.

Employer-Provided Tuition Assistance
The University of Maryland’s Global Campus provides helpful details on how to navigate between your employer and your school when taking advantage of tuition assistance.

How to Convince Your Boss to Invest in Your Education
Udacity gives you concrete steps for making the request and getting help with your master’s degree.

Sample Letter for Requesting Employer Support
Duke University’s Fuqua College of Business provides this template to make it easier to ask for tuition assistance.

Adult Student College Prep Checklist
Going back for your master’s after being out of school for a while can feel like unfamiliar territory. Federal Student Aid offers this handy checklist to ensure you don’t forget anything.

Employer Reimbursement Payment Agreement
Some colleges may require you and your company to sign an agreement for covering tuition and fees. The University of Denver provides an example of one of these agreements.

How to Ask Your Employer to Fund Your Education
If you feel nervous about actually asking your employer to help with your master’s degree funding, Investopedia provides tips to make the task feel less intimidating.