While there are many potential benefits of tuition assistance programs, the challenge for business leaders is to manage investments in employee education in a way that maximizes returns, both for the employer and the employee. Not only does tuition assistance need to encourage employees to develop specific skills, it also needs to empower employees to pursue their educational goals.

For companies who want to launch a new tuition assistance program - or revamp an existing one - I connected with John Zappa, CEO of EdLink to identify four steps to get started:

1. Identify goals; support with investments. Work with senior managers to set quantifiable, measurable goals. Address the question of cost early on, using those goals as a guiding compass. The more critical a goal, the larger your investment.

2. Establish guidelines; communicate expectations and opportunities. Clear guidelines and qualifications will help ensure tuition assistance supports business goals. As such, they should address what skills are valuable to the organization and why.

Make it easy for employees to understand business needs and how to make education choices that support those needs. Talk to employees about your tuition program in the onboarding process and periodically hold Q&A sessions to bolster interest and adoption.

3. Balance guidelines with flexibility and opportunity. While achieving business goals is important, offering employees an opportunity to pursue their personal goals is important, too.

By being flexible, and offering assistance for four-year degrees, continuous learning and applied learning coursework, employees can pursue educational goals in whatever timeframe suits their needs. Furthermore, courses unrelated to an employee's current position shouldn't be outright excluded. These provide opportunities for employees to acquire new skills and knowledge beyond the boundaries of their current role. This can improve employee satisfaction - which aids in retention - and create more rounded employees.

4. Measure outcomes and make adjustments as needed. Tuition assistance will have the greatest impact if it is treated as an investment in a larger talent management strategy.

To that end, measuring program outcomes - and how those outcomes affect other business initiatives - is essential. Track changes in retention and engagement, and compare data against nonparticipants. Cross reference this data with things like customer satisfaction or changes in sales numbers for hard data on the value of the program.

If the program is driving desired outcomes, consider allocating more resources to allow more employees to participate. If not, survey employees to identify the reasons. Were guidelines and qualifications too rigid? Was course completion an issue? Were work schedules an obstacle?

Investing in employee education is a great way to foster higher retention rates and improve employee performance, but at the end of the day you're working with limited resources. Remember that an effective plan doesn't have to be a large plan, but rather a smart plan. That begins with business strategy and proactive program management. The rest is up to your employees.

Kyle Lagunas is the HR analyst at Software Advice, an online resource for reviews and comparisons of talent management and learning management software.

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