Some companies pay for particular classes, others for degree programs, or up to only a certain percentage.

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Kate Maroney, a software developer at Microsoft, is one of the many employees benefiting from employer-reimbursed tuition for graduate degree programs.

With manager approval, Maroney pays upfront for classes in the master of computer science program at the University of Washington. At quarter’s end, she gets her tuition reimbursed — as long as she completed her classes with at least a 2.0 GPA.

“For my employer, I think it helps to round out my knowledge base, giving me insight into areas that I didn’t see during college that I could potentially apply to my job,” Maroney says, particularly where new research is concerned.

“In 1996, at Microsoft’s urging, UW Computer Science & Engineering introduced a part-time, evening master’s program oriented toward fully-employed professionals, our Professional Masters Program,” says Ed Lazowska, a professor in the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering at UW.

Students in the program typically take two or three courses per year, graduating in three years, he says. Around 50 degrees are awarded per year, with 160 students enrolled in the program. More than 800 degrees have been awarded so far; around 60 percent to Microsoft engineers.

Tuition by the numbers

To find out whether your employer offers tuition reimbursement, review your company’s benefits package, check with your human resources department or talk to your boss. Some companies pay for particular classes, others for degree programs, or up to only a certain percentage.

“In tech, many employers offer this as a benefit,” Lazowska says, referring to tuition reimbursement, including employers such as Microsoft, Google and Boeing. Many local tech employers offer up to $12,000 a year in tuition reimbursement, he notes. “This is an investment in the continued professional development of their engineering workforce,” he says.

Maroney’s costs are partially covered. “[Microsoft] will cover $10,000 a year for graduate studies, and since a quarter for the professional master’s program costs around $4,600 right now, it’ll cover about two and a half quarters a year,” Maroney says. Students can take quarters off — which extends time in school, but not by too much.

At Pacific Lutheran University’s Masters of Business Administration program, a good number of students benefit from tuition reimbursement, although the level of coverage varies, according to Juanita Reed, director of the MBA program at the PLU School of Business.

Some employers pay tuition directly to the registrar’s office, while others reimburse employees. The latter can be more financially difficult on the employee, Reed says, as most don’t reimburse until the semester has completed, but it’s more common.

The GI Bill is treated similarly to an employer tuition benefit, Reed says. Some MBA students are veterans, others are family members of veterans, and some are active duty military members awarded a year off to attend school.

Tethered to an employer

Of course, for some, the costs may outweigh the benefits. “Convincing an employer to pay for graduate school is the holy grail, but that may come at the cost of being tethered to that employer for a period after school to justify the expense,” says Todd Faubion, a Seattle-based graduate school consultant.

The cost is compounded when you figure in your new professional network and set of skills that may enrich your opportunities to move into a new job or role.

“How willing are you to gamble on your willingness to work at this employer for an extended period?” he suggests asking yourself.

Rules about coverage may vary by company — some won’t repay if you earned anything less than a B. Maroney needs to earn at least a 2.0 (a C) to get reimbursed, showing a proof via a transcript, then is reimbursed two-to-four weeks later.
Some companies require coursework to be work-related, while others have a flexible definition of work-related, including covering costs pertaining to future goals (such as a management degree, when you’re not yet in a managerial role).

According to the IRS, tuition reimbursement is tax-free up to $5,250 if your company has a qualified “educational assistance program,” including tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment. If you receive more than $5,250 in educational assistance, you’ll pay tax on that amount, unless it’s defined as a “fringe benefit.”

Asking for tuition coverage

When approaching an employer, point out the benefits to the company, Reed suggests. Even if your boss won’t foot the entire tuition bill, some will pay a certain amount per year.

You want to be able to point out how what you’re learning will be applied to your position, how that will benefit the company, Reed says. “How will this move the employer’s goals forward even more?”

Campaigning for a payment should include a nuanced, tailored list of what this degree will bring to your job, team or employer, Faubion says.

“The only way to be successful in this pitch is to show real value in terms that matter to decision makers,” he says. “There is no substitute for a well-reasoned and well-researched pitch.”

Even if an employer won’t pay your tuition, they may make life easier in other ways, such as allowing you to count school hours toward work time, permitting you to leave midday to attend a class or adjusting to a part-time schedule.

School time, work time

The University of Washington’s new Master of Jurisprudence program is geared toward mid-career professionals wishing to gain a targeted understanding of law, compliance and regulation in their chosen discipline or area of interest. Full-time, it can be completed in nine months, while part-timers might take two or three years. At least one student is having her program’s tuition covered by her employer.

That extended timeline is typical for working students juggling work and classroom time, because working 50–60 hours a week and then adding 10–15 hours of coursework can be pretty daunting, Lazowska says.

In graduate school, “we recommend slowing down a little bit, and taking the two-year program if working full-time,” Reed says. “That way you have more time to put into the program, and get more out of it.”

Students will reap benefits such as being able to apply in-classroom learning to real-world job situations and networking opportunities.

Some students are surprised at the amount of time it takes to do group projects, for example — coordinating meetings on campus or over Skype with multiple full-time schedules.

For Maroney, the math is working out. “Personally, I felt like my undergrad degree only gave me a really brief overview into a lot of areas of computer science, and I wanted a chance to go deeper into some, like programming language construction,” Maroney says. “UW has incredible professors, and I feel honored to have the chance to learn from them. So it gives me a way to expand my knowledge on topics that interest me.”