Back To School? Small Companies Can Support Student-Employees

Word that Starbucks was offering its employees the opportunity to earn a degree at no cost spread like wildfire when its partnership with Arizona State University (ASU) was announced in early 2015. Starbucks employees can now take courses toward a degree online through ASU.

As a small business, should you follow suit and help your employees get an education too? Starbucks decided that providing opportunities for employees to go to school would benefit workers and their employer. By supporting staff members who aspire to earn a degree, take classes in a particular subject area, or pursue an advanced degree, companies of all sizes often earn the loyalty, appreciation, and admiration of their workforce.

Employee education can take two forms: classes that augment an employee’s skills so he or she does better work for you, and coursework that’s outside your exact business interest but puts a degree or certification—and perhaps a better life—within reach of an employee.  

Although education of any kind can be expensive, the truth is that you don’t have to be a major corporation, like Starbucks, to assist employees who want to continue their education. There are a number of moves small businesses can make to encourage and support employees’ professional development that won’t break the bank or subtract valuable work time.

Consider Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Free courses that are frequently taught by professors at some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country are now available online. While they are not degree-granting programs, they can provide the information necessary to help employees improve their skills or even to place out of a credit course at a local college. As a small business, all you have to do is provide the time and encouragement, and perhaps a computer, to help employees expand their minds.

If you’d like to go further, you might work to create a series of MOOCs which build up to a certain set of skills. For example, an open source data science masters combines various free courses to create the equivalent of a degree in the trendy subject. If there’s a relevant expert on staff, you might also be able to pair the MOOC student with a mentor.

Barter. Small businesses that participate in reciprocal trade exchanges earn credits. Usually, these are used at other participating organizations, but don’t forget that they may extend to colleges and universities. While spending credits does cost the business money, it is not cash out-of-pocket. And, since the barter credits are often earned while leveraging excess capacity or inventory, bartering for education may be a smart way to convert idle equipment into money that employees can use to enroll in courses.

Attending conferences and trade shows. Industry trade shows often include an element of education for which attendees can register. This can range from multiple-day programs that lead to certification to single panel discussions. Depending on what your employee is after, or needs, registering for a local or regional conference can be an economical way to add to an employee’s knowledge base in a way that will benefit your business, while he or she also earns continuing education credits or a recognized industry designation.

Apply for a training grant. There are organizations and resources in each state that offer grants to U.S. businesses for employee training. Check the list here to see if your business might qualify for a grant to pay for employee education. This is specifically for workforce development, not for general-interest coursework.

Online degree programs. For workers who are interested in gaining credits toward a degree, online degree programs are typically more affordable than traditional colleges and universities. Some traditional schools do offer remote coursework, which is an option, but programs that are strictly online offer schedule flexibility that many adult learners need.

Community colleges. If an online degree doesn’t fit what an employee is after, another lower-cost option is a community college. These two-year local institutions often have relationships with area four-year universities that provide a path from a two-year associate’s degree to a four-year bachelor’s degree, at a lower cost. To support employees who want to work towards a degree, sit down with them to discuss how the commitment will fit in with their work, and consider offering a flexible schedule, or even use of your printer and office supplies, even if you can’t contribute to the cost.

Tax-deductible reimbursement. Small businesses can reimburse employees up to $5,250 per year for educational expenses and take that amount as a deduction. While there is still an expense, funding even a portion of an employee’s degree can make it possible for a person who works so hard for you to achieve his or her big dreams.

Offering all employees opportunities to learn more, improve their skills, explore an area of interest, or to earn a college degree. If you make opportunities for your employees to better themselves, karma says you’ll likely have better employees.