Employees Get New UHR-funded $2,000 Education Benefit

July 24, 2008 — In a major overhaul of education benefits at the University of Virginia, every academic division employee with at least one year of benefits-eligible service (including part-time service) can now receive $2,000 per calendar year for career-related education costs, funded centrally by University Human Resources. 

In a significant shift from past policy, the money can be spent at any regionally accredited school, a greater variety of classes can be considered "work related," and the benefit payment will be added directly to an employee's paycheck, said Susan Carkeek, vice president and chief human resources officer.

The new benefit, which went into effect July 1, replaces what had been a confusing trio of benefits — tuition assistance, tuition waiver and tuition reimbursement, Carkeek said. In the past there was at least a perception, she noted, that some departments or divisions were more able or willing than others to fund education benefits.

"The new benefit is more equitable, simpler and more portable," she said. "This is especially important as we move to a 'career paths' model where employees will need to add skills to move forward. We don't want that to be available to some people but not to others."

Under the old tuition reimbursement program an employee had to pay tuition costs up front and then be reimbursed later. Now the benefit payment will be added to the employee's next paycheck that occurs at least 10 days after submitting the proper forms to UHR. (Two charts detail the exact deadlines before each pay date.)

The new benefit can be used to pay for thousands of career-related education options, from online courses to basic literacy classes, to offerings at dozens of regional community colleges, technical and vocational schools, to undergraduate and graduate courses at private and public colleges. Lists of regionally accredited schools where the benefit can be used for credit are maintained by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, other regional accreditors,  and UHR. None of the lists are exhaustive.

The guidelines for a class to be considered "work-related" are more broadly defined than in the past policy, Anne Broccoli, interim director of benefits at UHR, explained. Covered classes now include all undergraduate coursework required for a degree program and any courses or degree programs (including technical and vocational training) that support an employee's career development plan or that "enhance U.Va.'s ability to respond to current and future needs," as the policy states.

"You could make a case that many courses might support the mission of the University," Broccoli said, "such as a course on mediation, since that is applicable workforce training." The new benefit also will cover two noncredit personal enrichment courses per semester from the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, she noted.

The benefit will not cover classes that are not regionally accredited. "We don't want our employees to spend time and effort, and University money, to attend classes that they won't get transfer credit for later on, if they wish," explained Emily Bardeen, director of Faculty and Staff Career Services for UHR, who encourages employees to contact her office for career guidance.

Classes must be taken for credit (no audits) and may not exceed seven undergraduate credits (or six graduate credits) per semester. The course must be completed with a grade of C- or better, or class costs must be repaid.

Departments may supplement the $2,000 benefit amount. "We want to remind people that they now have two sources [of funding for education benefits] — the centrally funded benefit and the departmental funding that continues to exist," Carkeek said. "Having the central fund is not meant to discourage departmental funding, but rather to encourage departments to continue to support their employees."

Employees must get supervisor approval to attend a class during work hours. Those contemplating a U.Va. degree should consider the educational contract program, which allows a department to fund all degree coursework in exchange for continued service (typically for two years) after the degree is completed.

Employees not enrolled in a degree program will take U.Va. classes through the Community Scholar Program of U.Va.'s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, where classes cost $292 per credit hour (2008-2009 rates), or $2,044 for seven credits. This applies for classes in seven of U.Va.'s 10 schools, including the McIntire School of Commerce and Darden School of Business. (The Schools of Law and Medicine do not allow part-time students. The Curry School of Education handles all registrations through its Office of Admissions at 924-3334.)

During calendar years 2006 and 2007, 509 academic division employees used their education benefits to pay for 1,265 courses valued at more than $1.36 million, Bardeen said. The Facilities Management Division and the U.Va. Police Department consistently ranked highest in numbers of courses that received departmental support, she added.

The new benefit does not cover workshops or professional conferences, which are more appropriately funded at the school and department level, Broccoli noted. Books, study materials and special course fees (like application and drop fees) are also not covered.

"This is a win-win program," said Carkeek. "Our employees can build skills and increase their knowledge, and thereby become more competent in their positions at the University."

— By Brevy Cannon