Posted: 13 Feb. 2020 5 min. read

Democratizing tuition “reimbursement”

Posted by Peter DeBellis and Julie Hiipakka on February 13, 2020.

As organizations manage constant disruption, they need workers who are prepared—and equipped—to be continuous learners. But many organizations are not taking the necessary steps to offer the full spectrum of learning opportunities to their people.

A prominent feature of US employer tuition reimbursement programs is that they work exactly as the name implies: via reimbursement. Employees pay educational expenses upfront and then are later reimbursed by their employer, subject to any eligibility requirements (e.g., tenure, grades for education in question, the relevance of the program, performance status) and approvals. Some employers will preapprove a course or program of study to help set an employee’s mind at ease that the reimbursement will come through. But the fact is that employees are typically asked to pay the cost upfront and then wait months until the courses and administrative processes have been completed before they receive the reimbursement.
In a previous blog titled “Learning as a reward?”, we noted that, in many organizations, learning and development opportunities beyond the most basic or required courses have historically been a de facto performance-based reward. But as the purpose of performance management evolves toward workforce growth and development1 in mature organizations—versus compensation and promotion—it stands to reason that employees should be afforded greater opportunity to pursue their own development more continuously and autonomously. If you agree, it may be time to take another look at the role of your organization’s tuition reimbursement program as an element of your overall approach to learning and development.

The US economy is growing, unemployment is down, and the stock market is up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the average employee has money on hand to pay for (even temporarily) their ongoing education. In fact, a 2018 report on the economic wellbeing of US households found that 40 percent of US adults would not be able to cover an unexpected expense of $400, more than 25 percent skipped necessary medical care in 2017, and more than 20 percent are unable to pay their monthly expenses in full.2 In this context, a program that asks employees to layout as much as $5,250 (a common annual employer education program limit tied to tax-deductibility 3 or more in a calendar year may be inaccessible to large groups of workers. Such a program is more likely to be attractive to and used by more highly compensated employees—whom it could be argued to have a less pressing need for such a program in the first place.

Given these (and other) potential challenges of a reimbursement model, many companies have decided to revisit their tuition program, and some have decided to move to a prepaid model, which requires little or no up-front, out-of-pocket investment by employees. Three organizations with large hourly workforces—McDonald’s4, Chipotle5, and Amazon6—are working directly with educational partners and institutions of higher learning to provide education assistance benefits at little or no cost to employees.

A prepaid program can reduce a company’s employee retention leverage as payouts happen before the course or program has been completed. (Some organizations implement clawback provisions that require employees who leave an organization within a certain timeframe to repay part or all the tuition assistance they have received.) Prepaid approaches can also present challenges for the enforcement of grade achievement or other common back-end program criteria. Finally, there’s a certain amount of legwork involved in establishing relationships with educational institutions and setting up prepaid tuition systems. However, some organizations have put in the work and made those trade-offs in exchange for enhanced, democratized education program participation and all the potential benefits that confer, such as retention, improved performance and engagement, and upskilling workers in lieu of acquiring them externally.7

The prevalence of prepaid tuition benefits and direct employer engagement with educational institutions is likely to expand in the future, particularly considering the findings of Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends survey. The top trend in this survey, learning in the flow of life, is grounded in the increasingly urgent need for organizations to help their workforces adapt to the changing world of work. Aligning with this need, 84 percent of survey respondents said they intended to increase their organization’s investment in reskilling, and almost as many leaned at least moderately toward retraining their existing workforce over hiring new talent.8

Workers continue to cite “opportunity to learn” as among their top reasons for selecting a job, even though 55 percent of the 2019 Trends survey respondents said that their organizations did not offer individuals any incentive for acquiring new skills.9 In a future where employees need and want to continuously learn, ongoing access to formal education—as well as learning in the flow of work—is a benefit to individuals and organizations that’s most likely worth the cost.


Peter DeBellis is a vice president and the total rewards research leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Julie Hiipakka is a vice president and the learning research leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP.


1Performance Management Maturity Model, Kathi Enderes and Matt Deruntz, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP, 2018.
2Report on the Economic Well-Being of US Households in 2017, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, May 2018.
4McDonald’s Triples Crew Tuition Assistance for Restaurant Employees, Lowers Eligibility Requirement to 90 Days, 2018.
5Chipotle Debuts Debt-Free Degrees For All Employees, 2019.
6Amazon US Benefits and Stock, Amazon Jobs, 2019.
7Why Companies Pay for College, The National Bureau of Economic Research, 2019
82019 Global Human Capital Trends: Learning in the Flow of Life, Deloitte LLP and Deloitte Insights, 2019.

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Julie Hiipakka

Julie Hiipakka

Vice President | Learning Research Leader

Julie leads learning research for Deloitte. Julie has more than 20 years of experience in learning and development, talent management, and recruitment in consulting and in-house roles. Her practitioner experience includes creating global onboarding programs, using peer-created learning within leadership training, multiple mergers and integrations, and leading a globally distributed team. Julie helps organizations create business impact by connecting learning, talent, and organizational change efforts to organizational goals and strategy. A certified professional in Learning and Performance, Julie holds a master’s degree in communication from Florida State University.

Pete DeBellis

Pete DeBellis

Research Leader | Total Rewards

Pete leads total rewards research for Deloitte. Pete has a deep understanding of the various tools organizations use to attract, motivate, develop, and retain talent—from compensation and benefits to worker wellbeing programs to experience and actualization opportunities, among others. His experience, gained as in-house rewards professional for public companies and as a consultant, helps him understand the critical linkages between total rewards, human resource strategy, and overarching business objectives. Pete holds a Bachelor of Science in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University.