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Tuition payback a strong retention tool for companies

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PHOTO/CHRISTOPHER HOLLAND
Karen Werkheiser at her desk at LifePath in Hanover Township, Northampton County. Today, she oversees the same tuition reimbursement program that helped her to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
PHOTO/CHRISTOPHER HOLLAND Karen Werkheiser at her desk at LifePath in Hanover Township, Northampton County. Today, she oversees the same tuition reimbursement program that helped her to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

In 1985, Karen Werkheiser of Quakertown joined LifePath as a word processor.

In 1985, Karen Werkheiser of Quakertown joined LifePath as a word processor.

Her associate degree from Bucks County Community College had prepared her as an executive secretary with an emphasis on word processing. She was soon promoted to an executive secretary in the agency, a position she held for several years.

When she discovered LifePath’s tuition reimbursement program, Werkheiser decided to take advantage of the chance to further her education and get part of her college degree paid for.

“DeSales University had what they call their Access Program,” she said. “It’s an accelerated program that offers new classes every eight weeks. I was living in Quakertown … so it was convenient.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in a variety of industries, including manufacturing, health care and construction, has continued on an upward trend in 2018. Increased employment has led to increased competition between businesses in these fields, leading many to offer tuition reimbursement programs to their employees, either for the first time or in new and different ways.

The National Bureau of Economic Research says about 20 percent of graduate students and 6 percent of undergraduate students receive some form of financial assistance from their employers.

“Knowing I would get some of my investment back was a big part of my decision-making,” Werkheiser said.

SIX-YEAR JOURNEY

Werkheiser started at DeSales in 1995 when online classes were limited, so she had to be in the classroom for each course.

Working full-time meant she took night classes, and it took her six years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business management with a certificate in human resource management.

That degree opened the door to a new job as HR specialist at LifePath, then manager, and in 2007, she was made the department’s director.

Werkheiser manages a six-person staff and now oversees the very program that made it all possible for her.

OPPORTUNITY REALIZED

Based in Hanover Township, Northampton County, LifePath provides homes and services to people with autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Greater Lehigh Valley and southeastern Pennsylvania and has about 850 employees.

Werkheiser’s position requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.

“I love LifePath, the mission, and the work we do has kept me here,” she said. “Our employees all have the same opportunity I had. There is growth opportunity here.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t taken advantage of the chance to get the education.”

RELEVANCE REQUIRED

Requirements to apply for LifePath’s tuition reimbursement program are similar to other large companies, Werkheiser said.

An employer has to have worked for at least a year to be eligible. Courses have to be relevant to the type of positions offered through LifePath, so studies in the fields of accounting, human resources, business, social work, health care, information technology and nursing all are possible degree programs.

The request has to be submitted to the HR department prior to starting a course for approval.

Student-employees must maintain a C or above average and will be reimbursed up to the maximum guidelines.

During the first year, the reimbursement is at a lower level than it is during subsequent years.

‘GREAT OPTION’

The tuition reimbursement program is a “great recruiting and retention tool,” and a “great option for those who want to advance in their careers,” Werkheiser said.

There is no stipulation that employees stay on at LifePath after graduation and no cap on the amount they can be reimbursed as they earn any level degree.

The number of LifePath employees who are in the program varies from year to year. Werkheiser said there have been as many as 80 at one time.

DEFERRED PAYMENT

DeSales University’s tuition reimbursement policies are similar to other institutions of higher education, according to Tom McNamara, the school’s executive director of communication.

“Students must provide a copy of their company’s policy to the bursar’s office and can defer payment on their tuition until the end of the semester,” McNamara said. “Books, registration and other fees are separate.”

For DeSales’ Access Program, payment is due within eight weeks after the end of the session, and for graduate programs, students have until the end of each semester to make payment.

“Companies have grade policies, but there’s enough time for course completion, grading and a grace period,” he said.

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