Survey: 27% of Online Students Get Tuition Help from Employer

September 14, 2022  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

Officials of international chemical company Lanxess ordered a cake with a Razorback drawn in red and black frosting on top when Lori Ragan earned a bachelor's degree online from the University of Arkansas. However, the support for Ragan, who works at the company's facility in the oil-producing southern Arkansas town of El Dorado, went beyond celebrating the accomplishment with Ragan's family and co-workers in the company break room. The company also helped pay for her degree. Many employers do.

Lanxess is based in Germany with U.S. headquarters in Pittsburgh and operates a facility in El Dorado, where Ragan lives with her husband and 6-year-old son. Ragan is one of Lanxess' employees who has benefited from a tuition reimbursement program the company offers for its U.S. employees.

"What's attractive about the tuition reimbursement program is that it gives you a chance to advance your career, to move into another position, to move up in the company."

Nancy Fornito, Pension and benefits specialist for Lanxess

One in Four Online Students Benefit from Reimbursement Programs

Last spring, the Global Campus surveyed University of Arkansas graduate and undergraduate students studying in online programs about several topics. The survey, which received responses from 618 students, found that 27.3% had part of their tuition sponsored or subsidized by their employer. For academic year 2021-2022, the U of A reported 4,332 students studying exclusively online.

The Global Campus supports the U of A academic colleges that offer more than 75 online degree, certificate, microcertificate and licensure programs. These programs are showcased on the U of A ONLINE website at

Tuition reimbursement programs are typically handled between the employer and employee with little involvement by the higher education institution. The employee requests and receives approval to participate, and after the course or semester ends, submits a transcript, receipts and any other documentation to prove completion and request reimbursement.

At Lanxess, like many companies that offer the benefits, the employee must earn a C or, in a simple pass/fail situation, show evidence of passing the course. Most companies require an employee to continue working for the company a certain length of time after finishing the educational program, or they must repay a percentage of the tuition payments.


Online Degrees Give Working People Options

While degree programs can help people enter or advance in the workplace, paying tuition can be a roadblock for some. Charles Robinson, interim chancellor of the University of Arkansas, said recently that "the cost of higher education is one of the greatest barriers" to enrolling in a degree program.

Tuition assistance from employers helps to shrink that cost barrier.

"What's attractive about the tuition reimbursement program is that it gives you a chance to advance your career, to move into another position, to move up in the company," said Nancy Fornito, pension and benefits specialist for Lanxess in Connecticut. "If we didn't offer the tuition reimbursement program, many people might not have the opportunity to further their education or advance in their career."

Ragan had earned an associate's degree from South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, and her previous training and work experiences led her to a position of training coordinator with Lanxess in 2014. She knew she wanted to further her education, and earlier this year she completed a bachelor's degree in human resource and workforce development education delivered online by the U of A. She chose to enroll in a degree program delivered online so she could continue working and taking care of her family in El Dorado at the same time.


Upgrading Employees' Skills One Goal of Program

At Lanxess, the course or degree must be relevant to the employee's job or the industry.

"If someone is interested in taking a single course in the simplest form to all-encompassing programs like an MBA, it needs to be something related to your job," Fornito said. "We encourage participants to discuss with their supervisor what they want to do."

Laura Martin is human resources manager at the Lanxess facility in El Dorado.

"Locally, we use the tuition reimbursement program as a perk to discuss during the job interview for every single candidate who comes in," Martin said. "People say, ‘Whoa, this is an option? Tell me more. Can I take more than one class? Show me how it works.'"

For some hourly employees working 12-hour shifts, they may not have had opportunities before because college was too expensive for them, she said. But now, by taking some courses, they can become eligible to move into other positions and roles that allow them to have greater job satisfaction and fulfillment, she said.

"They (other university employees) often don't get the same discount, especially for dependents. I found it interesting that we were the exception and not the rule."

Jamie Loftin, Assistant vice provost for distance education administration, University of Arkansas Global Campus

U of A Offers Tuition Waiver as Part of Benefit Package

Many large companies from Amazon to Wells Fargo offer money for tuition to their U.S. employees, and the programs and coverage vary by company. Employees can check with their human resource office to find out what their company provides. Some cover payment for books and fees other than tuition. Typically, an employee will have to pay the first semester's expenses out of pocket, get reimbursed at the end of that semester, and then be able to use the company-provided funds to pay for the next semester.

Jamie Loftin, assistant vice provost for distance education administration at the University of Arkansas Global Campus, said employees of the U of A in Fayetteville can take advantage of a tuition waiver program that pays 90 percent of tuition for full-time employees for both undergraduate and graduate degrees and 50 percent of tuition for their dependents and spouses for undergraduate degrees. That applies for degree programs offered by the U of A in Fayetteville. U of A employees can also receive a tuition waiver at lower percentage rates for degree programs at other institutions in the U of A system.

Loftin said she initially believed the U of A's generous program was standard for the industry but, as she met her peers at other institutions, she learned it was not.

"They often don't get the same discount, especially for dependents," Loftin said. "I found it interesting that we were the exception and not the rule."

"I would definitely recommend any students working while in school to look into it. Reach out to HR. There are quite a few companies that offer help, at least for undergraduate degrees. They might qualify and don't even realize it."

Trey Jenkins, U of A online degree graduate

Motivations Vary for Those Seeking Higher Education

For Trey Jenkins of Fort Smith, the tuition reimbursement he received from his current and previous employers made possible an undergraduate degree that may serve as a kind of insurance policy. He started an accounting degree in 2011 but didn't finish. He was successful working in banking, getting promotions and raises. While he didn't see the need to invest in a college degree to advance his career right now, he always wanted to finish someday and knew that at some point the piece of paper might be useful.

He finished the degree last May by studying in an online accounting degree program from the U of A.

"I don't plan to seek other employment right now, but you never know what may come up in the future," Jenkins said. "I would not have gone back to school if it were not for those (tuition reimbursement) programs. I'm glad I did it. I do think having this accounting degree is going to open doors for me down the line.

"I would definitely recommend any students working while in school to look into it," Jenkins continued. "Reach out to HR. There are quite a few companies that offer help, at least for undergraduate degrees. They might qualify and don't even realize it."

Tressyn Gehl, an online nursing student who lives in Indiana, is one of those students who used her own initiative to find out what assistance was available. She is a licensed practical nurse working on a bachelor's degree in nursing and has worked for 11 years in a busy family practice office. She discovered the large hospital group she works for offers a tuition reimbursement program when she was completing her application to the U of A online degree program.

"I happened to be on the human resources page for payroll and saw the link and clicked on it," Gehl said. "It has been a huge help especially when I had a heavier semester load, when I was taking a lot of pre-reqs. It's $2,000 a year so that goes pretty quick for books and fees."

Her employer recently switched to a third-party provider that pays the university directly rather than reimbursing her. The new system was more cumbersome, Gehl said, and she wasn't able to use it last spring.

"It helped with books I had to buy before my scholarships and Pell grant were available," she said. "With four kids, anything is a help."

Photo of Heidi Wells

Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at or 479-575-7239.

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