Employers zero in on education benefits

Education benefits are on the rise and more popular than ever.

On the heels of scores of employers adding education benefits for their employees, new research confirms those offerings are up significantly this year over last.

Education-assistance offerings, including employee scholarships, student aid and student-loan benefits, displayed the biggest year-over-year increase out of 13 benefits offerings–including leadership training, onsite fitness centers and paid parental leave–analyzed by HR organization WorldatWork. Usage surged to 26% in 2019 from 10% in 2018.

“In this tight job market, where competition to recruit top talent across all levels is paramount, organizations are responding to the changing needs and desires of the workforce with a multitude of total-rewards options,” says Scott Cawood, president and CEO of WorldatWork.

The WorldatWork findings dovetail with recent research from Bright Horizons that found interest in education benefits growing. With 90% of respondents expecting automation to change their job or industry, the findings suggest that anxiety about the future of work–and an estimated $1.5 billion in outstanding student debt–is driving unprecedented employee interest in benefits such as reimbursement, upskilling and student-loan repayment. Among the nation’s youngest workers, education and training now outrank paid-leave and retirement benefits.

“As the pace of technological change accelerates, the role–and value–of education in the workplace is exploding,” says Patrick Donovan, senior vice president of emerging services for Bright Horizons.

Research notes education benefits double as recruitment and retention tools–80% of employees say education benefits would cause them to be more likely to recommend their employers, according to Bright Horizons.

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Related: Trilogy Health Services already took aim at employees’ student debt. Now it’s going further

The percentage of employers offering student-loan benefits doubled this year from 4% in 2018 to 8% in 2019, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Related: Kathryn Mayer: Top 5 benefit trends of 2019

Meanwhile, employers continue to invest in tuition benefits, with some going even further by paying the entire bill for tuition costs.

For instance, Pacific Seafood this fall partnered with provider Zovio–an education company that works with other employers including Delta Airlines and Novetta–to deliver a full-tuition assistance program. Employees of the Clackamas, Ore.-based food company can now receive free tuition to obtain associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees at Ashford University, an accredited online university. The employer covers fees, books and graduation expenses as well; costs are directly billed to Pacific Seafood.

Chipotle also said recently it will cover 100% of tuition costs upfront for 75 business and technology degrees through Guild Education, a Denver-based company that administers tuition benefits for employers. After 120 days of employment, Chipotle workers become eligible to pursue degrees from five universities: the University of Arizona, Bellevue University, Brandman University, Southern New Hampshire University and Wilmington University.

Related: Chipotle to offer free tuition benefits to employees

“The reach and depth of total rewards has become increasingly diverse and expansive, in ways that would astonish workers from previous generations,” Cawood says.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.