Why Education Benefits Largely Go Unused

Amidst the Great Resignation, employers are more interested than ever in providing compensation packages that will engage a stronger, more competitive and more loyal workforce. Thus, more and more employers are considering the development of education benefits programs, which would conceivably assist their employees in pursuing advanced training — if their employees ever participate in those programs.

Despite the fact that over 80 percent of workers are interested in engaging with career-improving education while they maintain employment, just under 2 percent ever actually take advantage of education benefits programs offered by their employers. Even within organizations that loudly and proudly offer tuition assistance and other education benefits to workers, less than a quarter of the workforce ever attempts to use these benefits. Why, and what can organizations do to encourage more education amongst their employees?

How Most Education Benefits Programs Are Structured

Often, the reason employees fail to take advantage of education benefits is because the education programs available from employers are not structured in ways that facilitate use. Some common issues with benefit program structure include:

Not every employee has access to education benefits. In an attempt to develop greater employee loyalty, some employers restrict access to education benefit programs until after workers have reached certain milestones, like a certain amount of time working for the company or a certain level of career. Unfortunately, this usually deprives education from those who need it most. Younger employees and those at the very beginning of their careers find the most value from the skills and knowledge unlocked through education, which can provide them with the knowledge and skill they have not yet gained through experience.

Tuition assistance programs operate through reimbursement. Education can be expensive, and many employers are loath to proffer large sums of cash to employees on the flimsy hope that they will use it for tuition. As a result, employers typically manage tuition assistance by requiring employees to submit evidence of their tuition payments and reimbursing them for qualified costs. Yet, many employees cannot afford to pay for tuition on their own before their education benefits kick in. As a result, these workers will never be able to access these programs, which eliminates their value.

Advanced education is already required as a job qualification. In many cases, education benefits only cover the pursuit of entry-level training or lower-level degrees — which many employees already acquired as credentials to qualify them for their current positions. In many cases, advanced degrees and abundant experience is not necessary for entry- and low-level roles, so placing this major hurdle so early in a worker’s career is damaging to the workforce, especially when employers can help workers achieve the knowledge and skills they need through education benefits.

What Employees Can Do

Many employees are already doing what they can to let employers know the importance of access to education benefits: quitting. The Great Resignation is a massive memo to employers that they are not doing what is necessary to keep their workers engaged. According to Pew Research, the most frequently given reason from employees for leaving their positions during the Great Resignation was dissatisfaction with their compensation package, with 63 percent citing low pay as the primary reason for their resignation and 43 percent noting that benefits packages were lacking.

Aside from quitting, employees can speak frankly with their employers about their disappointment regarding education benefits. If direct supervisors are unresponsive to requests for greater education access, employees can reach out to more influential leaders within their organization. Conversations about an unused education benefit program will have greater impact if employees can point precisely to problems interfering with its use.

What Employers Can Do

Employers need to spend more time listening to and acting upon their employees’ wants and needs. Creating an education benefits program is not enough; employers need to be certain that their program is accessible and applicable to every level of employee within their organization. That might mean scaling back education benefits to make them more affordable, offering access to high-quality online short courses instead of traditional university degree programs. Employers also should not shy away from other types of career development programs that employees can benefit from, such as mentoring and shadowing programs.

There could be amazing advantages to education benefits programs — but first, employers need to ensure that employees can and will access them when they are available. Employees and employers alike have a responsibility to transform education benefits into practical and valuable tools for mutual success.