Is Your Tuition Benefits Program as Inclusive as it Could Be?

October 17, 2023
8 min read

Tuition benefits programs have long been a way for employers to attract, retain and train talent, but if those programs aren’t aligned with organizations’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies, their success could be severely hindered. Without such alignment, an employer’s tuition reimbursement program could exclude the employees it was intended to help in the first place.

In this article, we will discuss employers’ educational assistance programs and policies through the lens of inclusivity, beginning with how employers can assess their current efforts and exploring how they can improve employee participation. 

Assessing the Current Program

When was the last time you conducted a thorough review of your tuition assistance program, taking an objective look at your policies and the rate of employee participation? Conduct an effective and informative program assessment by:

  • Reviewing program policies and eligibility criteria: Are these benchmarks realistic or consistent with your current priorities for closing talent gaps? Is your program aligned with your DEI objectives? Are the eligibility criteria too restrictive?

  • Analyzing program participation and utilization data: What percentage of your workforce has utilized tuition benefits? Has this utilization resulted in the kind of upskilling, reskilling or advancement that was intended?

  • Collecting feedback from employees/students: What do employees have to say about your program? Would they recommend the benefit to other employees? If their experience was a negative one, it could cause them to have an overall negative opinion of your organization and workplace.

  • Identifying potential gaps or areas for improvement: There is always room for improvement, particularly in the area of DEI. What’s holding the program back?

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Improving Accessibility and Affordability

A strong tuition benefits program can help employers attract new talent and retain existing employees, thereby reducing recruiting costs overall. An effective tuition benefits program, either as a stand-alone policy or a component of an employee development plan, should be both accessible and more affordable to stimulate participation.

What do employees have to say about such programs? Eighty-four percent of employees responding to a recent survey said access to a tuition assistance program was important in their decision to join their company. And 71% of respondents rated tuition assistance as the best, or among the best, non-healthcare benefits their employer offers.

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Addressing financial barriers

If your analysis reveals underutilization of tuition assistance benefits, it could be because your policy imposes too heavy a financial burden on the employee. Employers should offer a minimum of $5,250 in assistance per employee, per year. This is the amount up to which the employer can reimburse the employee without the employee being taxed. Any amount above that would be subject to taxation as a fringe benefit. Employers, in turn, can deduct that amount from their taxes each year. This makes tuition reimbursement a cost-effective win-win for both employee and employer.

Tuition benefits can be amplified by scholarships and grants for college for qualifying students. The Women+Tech Scholarship and Tech Essentials Grant offered to qualifying students by DeVry University are a few examples.1

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Expanding eligibility to improve diversity

By now you’re no doubt familiar with the pros and cons of offering a tuition benefits program. But if your tuition benefits program is underperforming, it could be because your eligibility requirements are too restrictive. If your program restricts eligibility to full-time employees, consider opening it up to part-time employees as well, and be sure the program’s policies align with your stated DEI objectives. DeVry University Chief Inclusion, Belonging and Equity Officer Veronica Calderon describes education as an “equalizer” and emphasizes the need for people across the spectrum of income levels and career roles to have equal opportunities to pursue higher education.

Regarding the inherent inequities in some tuition reimbursement programs, Calderon says, “It’s important for employers to avoid being their own worst enemies by maintaining tuition benefits policies that lack inclusivity and shut out the very people who could benefit the most from them.”

Ensuring equal access and equal opportunity may require shifting your tuition benefits program from a tuition reimbursement policy to a tuition assistance policy. What’s the difference? Even though the terms tuition reimbursement and tuition assistance are often used interchangeably, and the two policies can be configured to offer similar benefits, a tuition assistance program does not require the employee to pay for their education upfront and then be reimbursed (provided they have met all the applicable conditions). This opens up access to more front-line or entry-level employees with lower incomes and limited access to credit. 


In a tuition assistance program, the employee’s tuition and fees can be paid by the employer, directly to the school, or deferred in some way through a partnership between the employer and the school. The employer can still attach certain restrictions (designated schools, qualifying certificate or degree programs, minimum GPA, timeframe requirements and the like) but the need for the employee to pay for their tuition out of pocket or obtain student loans is significantly reduced or eliminated altogether. If your plan requires the employee to pay their tuition up front or doesn’t include a direct bill option, you might want to consider an overhaul.

Finally, equal access to the program is important to achieve diverse participation. Every employee, regardless of their position or duties and responsibilities, should have an equal opportunity to participate. The benefit should be available on day 1 of employment and at the same level, regardless of tenure. This encourages early participation, enables upward mobility and allows the program to follow through on its initial promise. 

Promoting Awareness and Outreach

According to DeVry University senior enablement manager Jenna McCoy, “Something like 80% of employees working in companies are aware that their organization offer tuition benefits programs, but only half of workers actually use them.” This indicates the need for employers to do a more effective and consistent job of communicating the availability, benefits, purpose and other aspects of the program.

Developing a comprehensive communication strategy

Improved benefits communication is key to promoting awareness and understanding of your tuition benefits program. Research indicates that employees welcome the flexibility of accessing benefits information at home or at work, desire benefits information that’s easy to understand and would like their employer to provide the opportunity for them to speak with a benefits expert on company time.

Employers should advocate zealously for their tuition benefits programs, continuously promoting them and making information about them highly accessible. Informative materials and the smart utilization of communication channels such as email, intranet and social media to disseminate information about the program can make a big difference in its effectiveness.

Creating non-traditional career pathways

Your tuition benefits program can be strengthened through outreach and collaboration with employee resource groups and partnerships with educational institutions that offer programs aligned with your needs for filling talent gaps and upskilling or reskilling employees.  

In a recent CEO Roundtable session with former DeVry University CEO Tom Monahan, 6 tech employers emphasized the importance of upskilling, reskilling and continuous learning to fill current and predicted talent gaps. In their assessment of the current tech talent economy, these tech innovators agreed that non-traditional career pathways like certificate programs, online learning platforms, technical colleges and boot camps can all play a part in developing talent, and that sponsorship and mentorship programs can lift the confidence of entry-level talent, closing what the panelists described as a “belief gap.”

DeVry University offers a range of workforce solutions to help employers fill talent gaps and meet talent succession challenges. DeVry can help employers develop a tuition benefits program with tailored learning pathways based on its broad offering of undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs in technology, healthcare, accounting and business management. 

Addressing Barriers to Participation

Companies develop DEI policies to ensure that their employees from marginalized backgrounds are having the same experience and have access to the same opportunities as employees from dominant groups or well-represented backgrounds. Aligning tuition benefits policies with DEI initiatives can’t be accomplished without a realistic assessment by HR and DEI leaders of the systems and processes that work to derail equal opportunity. In an April 2020 Gartner survey, more than two-thirds of corporate DEI leaders said the advancement of underrepresented talent was a priority. But in another survey of 113 HR leaders, 88% felt their organization had not been effective in increasing diverse representation.

In their research, Gartner identified unclear career paths and steps toward advancement, too little exposure to senior leaders and lack of mentors or career support as barriers to the advancement of underrepresented talent. To truly increase diversity in management and leadership, they conclude that HR and DEI must work together to address the systematic biases embedded in their systems, processes and stakeholders.

At DeVryWorks, we believe that if we are to “reset” the ways in which underrepresented talent is advanced, we must make sure tuition benefits programs are more accessible, more equitable and aligned with employers’ DEI objectives.

Along with smart tuition benefits, mentorship or coaching programs can help newly-hired talent to gain a sense of belonging and a boost in confidence. In our recent CEO Roundtable, the panelists agreed that accessing and activating new pools of talent, through relaxed degree requirements for hiring and outreach to underrepresented communities, makes the workforce more diverse but also requires companies to devise new career pathways. These could include sponsorship and mentorship programs that could elevate individuals who are underrepresented. 

How DeVryWorks Can Help Advance Your DEI Objectives

By building a tuition benefits program that is designed to help you solve for your current and predicted talent gaps and aligned with your DEI initiatives, DeVryWorks can help you acquire, elevate, train and retain the diverse and productive workforce you need. Our learning pathway consultants can help transform your challenges and objectives into actionable, hands-on learning pathways that solve for current skills gaps in IT and cyber security, accounting and finance, operations and supply chain management and other in-demand areas and ladder up to your talent succession planning.

Contact us today to learn more.

Does Your Tuition Policy Reflect Inclusivity? 

To learn more on this topic and see how your organization’s tuition benefits policy aligns with inclusivity objectives, download these practical tools: 

1Student loans, grants and scholarships are available to those who apply and qualify.