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Sunday, November 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fog/Mist
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When your boss picks up the tab
...a free lunch is nice, but tuition's even better
on

There are plenty of ways to pay for higher education: Take out student loans, plead with relatives, work your fingers to the bone, eat only ramen noodles, and never find time to smile - take your pick. Members of the class of 2006 finished their undergraduate years with an average student loan debt of $21,100, according to a 2007 study by the Project on Student Debt.

Many of those people return to school for more training, which can mean more debt. But whether it's your first time around or you're back for more, a number of area employers will pick up some

of or even the entire tab for employees' college credits in exchange for their dedicated work. So you can earn a paycheck and tuition, too - maybe that will put a smile back on your face.

City of Madison

The city's tuition reimbursement program is available to permanent full-time and part-time employees who have completed at least six months of work. The city reimburses only for job-related courses, so no matter how much an employee might argue that Victorian poetry is relevant to his job duties, it likely will not be covered. And while it reimburses for tuition, other costs such as books are up to the employee. Employees must receive a grade of C or higher to be eligible.

Another restriction is time - course times may not interfere with normal job duties. Perhaps this is a small price to pay to receive the 50% tuition reimbursement (based on UW or MATC fees). The city's tuition benefits may improve; P.J. White, training coordinator for the city, hopes the program will become "bigger and better for city of Madison employees in the future."

American Family Insurance

Employees need to spend a year at American Family before becoming eligible to participate in the company's tuition reimbursement program. After that, both regular full-time and part-time employees are eligible, as long as they receive a passing grade in their courses. American Family reimburses not only for tuition, but also for textbooks and associated fees, to the tune of $5,250 per year for full-time and $2,625 per year for part-time workers. Considering most semesters at MATC are under $2,000 and a semester at UW-Madison is around $3,500, the reimbursement program will completely cover tuition costs, or at least make a large dent in them.

UW Hospital & Clinics

Robert Halfmann, Academy Program Coordinator for UW Hospital & Clinics, explains that many of its employees use their tuition reimbursement program as a way of climbing the ranks: "A nursing assistant becomes a registered nurse, or a registered nurse gets a master's of science in nursing." This sort of advancement is possible for all employees. Up to 100% of tuition (based on UW-Madison rates) is reimbursable; this is prorated for part-time employees. Books and other fees are not covered. Employees in undergraduate-level courses must earn at least a C and graduate-level courses require a minimum grade of B. There is no waiting period for new employees to use the program.

Troy Lawrence, a UW-Madison junior who plans to become a nurse, is working at UW Hospital as an emergency department coordinator and will take advantage of the tuition reimbursement program next year. "The program definitely makes me feel better about my employer," says Lawrence. "It would be impossible for me to pay for college without assistance, and next year I'll make it through the year without any loans."

Meriter Hospital

Meriter has something better than a tuition reimbursement program: The hospital will pay employees' tuition before a course begins. Nobody's stuck scrambling to pay the whole bill at the beginning of the semester or waiting for their reimbursement check at the end. "As far as I know, we're the only employer in the area that pays for tuition up front," says Karen Stebbins, manager of Meriter's program. All employees are eligible after six months of employment, and both tuition and books are covered. There's a $5,000 limit per calendar year for full-time employees, prorated for part-timers. Meriter does not require courses to be directly related to job duties, but they must be related to the hospital's overall goals; for instance, a nurse could take a public relations course. If an employee slips up and doesn't earn at least a C, he'll need to pay back the funds, but this requirement must not be too daunting: Over 10% of eligible employees use Meriter's program, a higher percentage than other employers surveyed for this article.

St. Mary's Hospital

In keeping with Madison's other health-care facilities, St. Mary's also offers tuition reimbursement to its employees. As long as workers are at least part-time, they are eligible, and tuition is prorated based on the number of hours worked per pay period.

Up to $12,480 is reimbursable per degree, and $4,160 is the most that will be reimbursed during a calendar year. Employees must earn a C or higher and cover the cost of their books. New employees are eligible, but they must be employed by St. Mary's before courses begin in order to be reimbursed.

Epic Systems

Epic Systems' website features the slogan, "People who do their homework choose Epic." Based on the firm's education benefits, it could go on to read, "...and people who choose Epic may continue to do their homework." Full-time employees at this health-care software company are eligible for tuition reimbursement of up to $2,000 per semester. Courses must be related to job duties, and students must receive at least a B-C. Employees taking advantage of the program have to have worked for the company at least two years before being eligible, and must stay at least two years after. The longevity clause may be advantageous to the employees, since it could take them that long to learn their way around the ever-expanding Epic campus.

UW-Madison

It's only fitting that the university, which educates tens of thousands of students each year, would also educate its employees. The university's tuition-reimbursement program is offered to all faculty, academic staff and limited-term appointees who work at least part-time. 100% of tuition is reimbursed, but books and other fees are not covered. Employees must pull at least a C grade, which is feasible, considering the university covers only up to three credits (one course) each semester. The course must be job-related. Other university staff, labeled "classified," are eligible for a similar tuition-reimbursement program negotiated by their union. One slight catch: Employees must be certain there are funds available in their department for tuition before expecting a reimbursement.

If your current employer doesn't have an established tuition reimbursement program, it still might be possible to arrange some type of tuition assistance. Talk to your supervisor or human resources department to explore your options. The more educated you become, the more valuable you are to your employer - and that's a winning situation for everyone.

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