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Continue Your Education on the Boss's Dime

Education. Nursing. Business. Telecommunications. IT. What do these fields have in common? For starters, once you get your foot in the door, you've got a great shot at getting your employer to pay for advanced studies, which will ultimately lead to a bigger paycheck.

Just ask Maria Sanchez of Miami. While Sanchez was working as a bilingual customer service representative for T-Mobile USA, the company paid for the remaining tuition credits necessary to earn her bachelor's degree in communication with a minor in marketing from Florida International University in Miami. T-Mobile even granted her two months unpaid time off (complete with health benefits) last year so she could participate in a summer abroad program in Germany focused on marketing.

"My degree has opened doors for great opportunities," Sanchez says. "I was able to get additional responsibilities as I advanced with my curriculum's courses. In addition to the outstanding training in customer service I received at T-Mobile, this leadership experience allowed me a smooth transition into the communications field."

Tuition Assistance Still a Perk

In this tough economy where salary freezes are becoming more and more the norm, many employees are looking to added perks, such as tuition assistance and reimbursement, for career motivation. In fact, the 2009 Employee Benefits Survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 63 percent of surveyed employers offer undergraduate educational assistance, and 59 percent offer graduate educational assistance. Only 7 percent of employers who offer educational assistance plan to reduce or eliminate the benefits in the coming year.

"Employees who are lifetime learners are the same employees who embrace change" -- a much-needed skill in turbulent times, says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Northampton, Massachusetts-based Human Resource Solutions. Matuson herself benefited from tuition assistance while working for Weingarten Realty Investors in Houston. The company reimbursed her for tuition and books while she pursued her MBA at the University of Houston.

"The experience enabled me to bring leading-edge ideas into my workplace," she says. "I may have left the organization much earlier than I actually did had they not continued to support my efforts in earning my MBA."

Read the Fine Print

Before enrolling in school with the hope of your employer footing the bill, be sure to check with human resources to make sure you qualify for assistance. Not every education program will pass the test. It's also important to find out how much of the tuition bill the company will cover, and what restrictions, if any, exist. At Zebra Technologies Corp. in Illinois, employees working more than 30 hours a week are eligible for up to $5,250 in tuition assistance, the current IRS maximum. Employees who take advantage of the tuition assistance program are then expected to stay at the firm for at least two years with satisfactory performance reviews.

Climbing the Career Ladder

At UT Medical Group Inc., a large physician practice in Tennessee, tuition assistance successes include several doctoral candidates and a medical receptionist who pursued her LPN and then her RN on the company dime and is now in nurse practitioner school.

And at Beryl, a healthcare-focused call center, the night shift is filled with college students. Beryl pays for employees' tuition upfront, with a maximum payment of $3,000 per year. "Between calls, we allow our co-workers to study and read," says Andrew Pryor, vice president of human resources. "This provides a wonderful opportunity for extra study time or to quiz your neighbor at the workstation beside you." The call center also offers an onsite library, which is stocked with books on everything from business management and personal development to dieting and community service.

Tuition reimbursement is one of the simplest -- and relatively low-cost -- ways of increasing employee innovation, says Stephen Balzac, president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm in Massachusetts. "When you give people the opportunity to learn, you are giving them the opportunity to become more skilled," he says. "That builds loyalty and motivation."

by Tamar Snyder, a reporter living in New York who writes about education, personal finance, and careers.

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