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Companies pick up college tab

Tuition assistance programs make comeback at firms

Rolf-Dieter Seichter, a president at VTech Telecom of Cambridge, didn't care that he was 61 and going back to school.

A business degree, Seichter figured, would allow him to keep pace with his younger co-workers, open his mind to cutting-edge ideas, and enhance his understanding of international markets. By attending Suffolk University's accelerated Executive MBA program, meanwhile, he could earn a diploma in a scant 15 months.

But when asked to name the most important factor in his return to school, Seichter gave all the credit to VTech's generous tuition assistance program. Seichter's master's degree in business administration will cost more than $50,000, and he's not paying 1 cent of the bill.

''For full-time employees with the company at least 90 days, they reimburse 50 percent at registration and 50 percent if you maintain a B grade," said Seichter, of Guilford, N.H. ''So far my average is 3.959."

Tuition assistance programs overall took a hit when the economy dipped four years ago and companies began paring benefits. But a survey of several local colleges and some of the state's largest employers shows that such programs are again thriving, with many companies either level-funding or boosting budgets for continuing education for their employees.

Some employers give as much as $5,000 a year for workers to pursue undergraduate degrees or professional certification programs at community colleges or institutions with strong continuing education programs such as Wentworth Technical Institute, Nichols College, or Northeastern University. Employees seeking graduate degrees can be eligible for up to $10,000 a year in tuition reimbursement, depending on where they work.

The perks for employees -- namely, a free education and professional development -- remain obvious. But employers benefit from such programs, too, say those in the education field.

Like other benefits, tuition assistance programs help companies attract new talent.

''Joe Employee is not going to go across the street to a competitor if the competitor doesn't have a tuition reimbursement program," said Gary Wallrapp, director of community and corporate education at Quincy College.

Educational grants also help retain employees: Seichter has promised to stay another five years at VTech in exchange for his MBA, while many employers require workers to pay back tuition if they jump jobs before graduating.

Richard Torrisi, dean of graduate programs at Suffolk Business School, said smart companies know the money they spend on education will reap other rewards, too.

''You hope your employees are bringing back state-of-the-art skills and new prospectives, not only from the professors and the curriculum, but also from fellow students," he said. ''We emphasize in every class -- not every course, but every class -- that they bring back something they can apply to their company."

Based on recent figures from several companies, many are embracing that mantra. Nearly 30 percent of Commerce Insurance's 2,100 employees are enrolled in various continuing education programs. Bright Horizons Family Solutions, the Chelmsford-based child-care giant, spent 35 percent more on employee education in 2004 than in 2003 and even began offering tuition money up front to entice more employees to go back to school.

Continuing education is such a priority at EMC, a Hopkinton-based firm specializing in information technology, that the company brings Northeastern professors to the office to teach MBA classes. On Aug. 11, 40 EMC employees received their business degrees, EMC's third graduating class since 2001.

''A programmer who just knows programming and doesn't know how it fits into the business world isn't as valuable as one who understands the whole supply chain, marketing, and customer relations," said Mike Murphy, senior director of human resource communications at EMC.

With about 15 employees, Arrow Construction Co. Inc. of Hopedale is hardly a large business. Still, owner Ed Hoell estimated that he has spent $20,000 during the past two years on tuition fees for his workers and their families.

''If you're working for me and you're either taking a course or something like that, we have no problem picking up the tab," Hoell said. ''It helps these guys know that we care. Some of our guys don't even have a GED. They say, 'Well if we took the classes, would you pay for it?' I tell them, 'Sure we'll pay. And take a couple more.' "

For workers such as Peter Ross, an EMC employee who received his MBA last month, going back to school was a must for career advancement. For Donna Keegan, a 53-year-old administrator at Wentworth who is taking free night classes at the school, returning to the classroom was more about personal accomplishment. ''In some cases there have been young students in class -- students who are my kids' ages. It's interesting," she said.

For Seichter, it's been a bit of both.

''I can contribute in class. That's one reason why I joined Suffolk. To give back what I have learned in the past," said Seichter, a former Wang and Digital employee. ''But times have changed. Theories have changed. The world is closer together. The program has been a very good experience. I'm looking forward to graduating next year. I'm the class of 2006."

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