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St. Louis Broadband Provider Offers Tuition Plans for Workers

Charter, the parent company of the area’s cable and broadband provider Spectrum, will cover 100 percent of tuition costs for workers pursuing a high school diploma, undergraduate or associate degree and some certificate programs.

Charter, the parent company of St. Louis, Mo., area cable and broadband provider Spectrum, has announced plans to cover 100 percent of tuition costs for workers pursuing a high school diploma, undergraduate and associate degree and some certificate programs — all without having to pay upfront.

The new program is an expansion of Charter's previous tuition reimbursement policy. Last fall, Charter nearly doubled its previous reimbursement limit with an expansion to $10,000 per year, per employee, said Beth Biggs, group vice president of benefits at Charter.

"We realized, even though that's a great benefit, it still means that employees had to pay out-of-pocket first, and continuing education just isn't affordable for folks, even if they're only having to pay for a few months in advance," she said. "We felt like it was really important to take away those barriers and provide tuition upfront."

Charter joins global giants like Starbucks, Walmart and Amazon, chains like Chipotle and local businesses that use continuing education as a tool to attract and retain workers. A study by EdAssist found that 84 percent of respondents said tuition assistance made a difference in choosing where to work, and some 80 percent said it makes them more likely to stay.

"There's been programs like this in different stripes at companies for a while, but they kind of ebb and flow," said Peter Boumgarden, a professor at Washington University's business school. "A push for some companies toward doing more of this is a good thing, and it's a thing that maybe is moving back in the direction of trying to recruit employees with things beyond pay."

Charter is partnering with the Guild Career Opportunity Program, which offers career coaching and time management programs in addition to more than 300 programs and degrees that are attractive to employers, such as cyber security, marketing and business.

Chief Customer Officer Jonathan Marek said the role of Guild is to meet employees where they are in their career. "They really need to see a pathway within their companies," he said.

Charter employees can choose among 30 different institutions, including Purdue University Global, eCornell and University of Maryland Global Campus. It's meant to cover education on "anything that can lead to a job at Charter," Biggs said. The company isn't requiring any employee commitment in return, and no manager approval is required.

Health-care workers in the St. Louis area also have seen increasing options for upfront tuition assistance. The Mercy health system, for example, partnered last year with St. Louis Community College to provide complete tuition coverage to selected nursing students, in addition to their other options for traditional tuition reimbursement or loan forgiveness.

In return, the students work paid, part-time positions that don't require certifications while they study for their degree and agree to a two-year commitment post-graduation, when they can take on a role as a registered nurse.

Kayla Drady, executive director of talent acquisition strategy and operations at Mercy, said over 1,100 employees have taken advantage of the tuition programs across the Mercy health system.

"We recognize that there's a shift in the market and what candidates want. What they're interested in is constantly changing with the different generations," Drady said. "One thing that Gen Zs are specifically interested in is professional development and what opportunities we can provide to them to grow their careers."

Leah Jansen, executive director of critical care at Mercy Hospital South, said she used the tuition assistance offered by Mercy to earn a master's degree in healthcare and leadership.

"I've been this natural-born leader even since I was a child," she said. "And as part of my role now, the expectation is you have to have a master's degree."

Jansen said she was able to pursue her master's degree during the height of the COVID pandemic, even with her position in healthcare and with a young child, by devoting time to it on the weekends.

The payment was managed through a third party, similar to the Charter program, so that Jansen didn't have to pay anything upfront — "not a dime," she said.

"It's no secret that the healthcare profession needs nurses," she said. "So we have to get creative and offer things to people like that — offer tuition reimbursement or assistance to help people get there."

Similarly, the ongoing teacher shortage in the St. Louis area has led to efforts toward increasing retention. Confluence Academies, a cluster of local charter schools, first introduced their tuition reimbursement program in 2017, along with "efforts to retain more staff," said Dion Edwards, chief human resources officer.

Confluence Academies provides up to six credit hours of tuition reimbursement for its employees per semester. Teachers, administrators and support staff at the school can earn their degrees in any subject at any university, pending approval of the academy. Edwards said the reimbursements have been used by employees in every type of role, including a school safety officer.

Edwards said the reimbursement program has experienced a steady climb of applicants, and that most of the applicants pursue their master's degrees. "The tuition reimbursement program gives us an opportunity to provide greater compensation," he said.

(c)2023 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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