What to Know About Employer Tuition Benefits for College

Darby Conley had a few false starts on her path to a college degree.

"Over the course of last 10 years, I have started online classes and gone to local colleges," she says. "My job is demanding. My children are very demanding. I could never find the right flexible balance."

When her employer Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield partnered with College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, which provides competency-based online education to workers of its employer partners, she tried again.

Now, the New Hampshire resident has earned an associate degree and is pursuing a bachelor's degree in communications.

"In the workplace, everyone requires a degree," she says.

[Find out how to convince an employer to pay for an online degree.]

The majority of employers seem to agree with Conley. Among them, 54 percent offer undergraduate tuition assistance, according to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management. The average maximum reimbursement amount is $4,591.

Taking advantage of this benefit can be an affordable way to pursue a degree, say experts. But there are lots of financial variables to consider. Here's what to know.

1. Benefits vary. The amounts and types of tuition assistance run the gamut, depending on the company. Some employers develop their own educational programs while others outsource to colleges and universities. One company may cover the full cost of tuition while another might cap reimbursement at a dollar amount.

"Some employers will allow people to pursue any type of a postsecondary degree," says Laura Winters, associate vice president for client relations and career services at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. "But most employers specify the areas of study."

Employers may also require that participants maintain a minimum grade-point average or work six months or longer before taking advantage of the benefit, among other requirements.

[Learn how to beef up job skills without going deeper into student loan debt.]

To find out what the parameters are, head to your human resources department, says Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management. "There's a better-than-decent chance that these programs are administered by the HR program," he says. "That's your first point of contact."

2. Tap your savings. While some employers cover tuition upfront, most reimburse after the course ends, says Elliott.

If paying upfront is a challenge for cash-strapped employees, the bursar's office may allow for partial tuition payment with a letter from the employer. "It's going to vary from school to school as to whether they'll let that balance stay outstanding until reimbursement," says Leo Hertling, associate director of the division of financial aid at Purdue University.

Students can also look into paying for tuition in installments through a school's payment plan, says Elizabeth Hibner, product management director at CAEL.

And don't expect every dollar to be reimbursed, say experts, especially when taking classes at a pricey private college or traditional public university.

"Reimbursement often only pays for a small piece of a traditional degree," says Colin Van Ostern, chief marketing officer at College for America.

That amount may go further at a community college or by taking one course at a time, say experts.

3. Don't forget financial aid. Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid can help students close the gap between the whole cost of a program and employer tuition assistance.

But keep in mind that students must enroll at least half-time to qualify for most federal aid programs, says Hertling, of Purdue. Pell Grants are the notable exception -- although the award amount may be reduced.

Students must also report their tuition assistance amount to the school they're attending, just as they would with an outside scholarship. "A lot of folks don't realize that if it's a third-party source, they need to tell us," he says.

A generous tuition reimbursement plan may affect the amount of federal loans a student can borrow, says Hertling. The amount that a student receives in loans and tuition assistance can't exceed the whole cost of attendance.

[Read about the financial factors to consider when making the part-time college calculation.]

4. The government might get a cut. Employees typically pay tax on any amount of educational assistance that tops $5,250.

For that reason, many companies max out tuition benefits around that amount. "Typically the easiest thing to do is for companies to use the IRS guideline," says Hibner, of CAEL. "You'll see a lot of $5,250 limits."

But despite the complications and costs, experts caution employees against leaving this benefit on the table. "It helps their careers and it helps their companies," says Winters. "It's a win-win all around."

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

Susannah Snider is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering paying for college and graduate school. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at ssnider@usnews.com.