While earning an online college or graduate degree can lead to a significant career boost, it can also lead to a significant dent in savings.
One way to ease the financial burden, at least for working adults, is to convince your employer to chip in for education costs.
Most employers have some kind of tuition reimbursement policy, according to a 2013 survey of more than 500 human resources professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management. The report found 61 percent of U.S. organizations help pay for undergraduate degrees and 59 percent offer assistance for graduate degrees.
To qualify for those benefits, all employees – be they prospective online or brick-and-mortar students – will need to make a strong case that their education will help the company. Experts say future online students may need to take a unique approach to the conversation, however, since many employers are not as familiar with virtual learning.
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Starbucks may have made headlines recently by creating a tuition reimbursement program for employers who pursue online degrees, but that doesn't mean all employers share the company's enthusiasm for online learning. Despite the growth of online programs offered by public schools in recent years, some employers are still skeptical about the quality of online education, says Mary Ellen Slayter, a career expert at the job placement site Monster.com.
"One of the biggest shifts in the last few years is that online education has become more normalized," she says. "But be prepared for the fact that some people aren't aware of the shift."
When prospective online students approach an employer about tuition assistance, they should do so with confidence in the value of their online degree, Slayter says. "If you come in thinking that there is something that you need to apologize for, you are setting yourself up not to get a 'yes,'" she says.
Most employers will warm up to the idea of online learning, though it may take a bit of extra explanation on part of the prospective student to get them there, says Pamela Tate, president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a group committed to expanding lifelong opportunities for adults.
Before employees start the conversation, they should research their preferred online program and be able to convince their employer of its merits, she says.
"Make sure the employer knows that this institution is regionally accredited and that you have looked into the quality of the program they offer," says Tate. "Those prove to the employer that you've done your homework."
[Determine whether your online program is accredited.]
Pathik Bhatt had to go through that process several years ago when he approached his employer, a Chicago-based promotional marketing company, about tuition reimbursement for an MBA program.
At the time he was choosing between a local, on-campus option and the online MBA program at Indiana University, but was leaning toward the latter.
"I did get some pushback," says Bhatt, an Indianapolis resident who now works for the program in Bloomington and plans on graduating in 2015. "Some people said, 'Are you sure this is good and you aren't sacrificing anything by going online?' But I chose a reputable program that is well-recognized in the industry and that kind of alleviated that fear.'"
When students approach their employers, they should also be prepared to emphasize the advantages online programs may have over traditional brick-and-mortar options, experts say.
"I think you can make the point that the whole online experience is really tailored to the adult working student," says Dan Lance, director of learning and leadership programs in the power generation products division of GE Power and Water, part of General Electric Co.
Supervisors want to know that they can still get a solid work performance out of their employees even when they're in school, and online education makes that possible, he says.
"It's not like you're going to have to go to night classes during the week," he says. "It's very, very flexible from a schedule standpoint. It gives you the best opportunity to balance your educational demands with your work demands."
Online degrees can sometimes be better bargains than their on-campus counterparts, Lance says, and employees should also mention any relative cost savings to their manager.
Corrected on July 9, 2014: A previous version of this article misstated the city where Pathik Bhatt works.