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Expenses are tight for most companies these days, but continuing your education could still be valuable for your employer. After all, learning new skills and staying current on industry trends can only make you a better employee, which in turn means you can contribute more to your employer’s bottom line. This reasoning might be why 92 percent of US employers offer some sort of educational benefit, according to a 2019 survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

Be that as it may, broaching the subject with your higher-ups may feel intimidating, especially during a time of shrinking budgets and increased layoffs. Here are some key points to consider as you ponder whether to ask for education benefits:

Identify Your Company’s Current Benefits

The first thing on your to-do list should be getting clear on whether your company even offers education benefits. Reach out to your HR manager or whoever handles employee benefits within your organization. Some, for example, may offer an upfront employer contribution. Others may structure tuition assistance as an employee reimbursement, meaning you’d have to float the cost until the company pays you back.

It’s also wise to ask if benefits are exclusive to specific fields of study. If you’re working for an engineering company, it may not be keen on paying for your master’s degree in art history. However, stipulations here could actually work to your advantage. For instance, Amazon covers 95 percent of tuition and fees for degrees and certificates in high-demand occupations, which include everything from aircraft mechanics to medical lab technologies.

Consider How Long You’ve Been With the Company

To be eligible for that Amazon benefit we just mentioned, associates must be employed for at least one continuous year. Find out if there are any similar employment minimums you’d have to meet — and, if so, whether you meet them. If you’re in the clear, it’s time to officially ask your employer about putting the benefit to use. Be sure to drive home the fact that you’re committed to the company for the foreseeable future.

“Asking for an employer to cover education costs means the employer is making an investment in your personal and professional development, so there has to be a commitment on both sides,” multigenerational workplace expert Adam Smiley Poswolsky says. “If you’re investing in the company, they will be more inclined to invest in you.”

Add Value When Making the Ask

Depending on your field of study, the certificate or degree you’re seeking could be costly. This is precisely why the way you approach the subject with your employer matters. Support your ask by preparing for the meeting and putting yourself in your manager’s shoes. What would make your education a worthwhile investment for the organization? It’s an especially important question to ask if your company doesn’t traditionally offer education assistance.

“I always recommend adding value before asking for favors from an employer,” Smiley Poswolsky says. “Be ready to point to your performance on a recent project and be ready to show how much value you’ve added to your team.”

Lastly, use data to support your case. There’s plenty of research pointing to the value of in-house education benefit programs. The 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, for instance, found that 73 percent of folks who plan to stay with their employers for five years or more said their organizations offered strong training and education options. Don’t be afraid to leverage data points that make sense for your unique situation.

Start Small and See How It Goes

Beginning initial talks by asking for thousands of dollars in tuition assistance may not be the best strategy, especially if you’re working for a smaller company. Starting small and looking for other ways to learn could be a great jumping-off point that leads to bigger and better education opportunities.

“Rather than coming out of the gate with a request that your employer pays for grad school, see if they’re willing to pay for an online course or a leadership development program,” Smiley Poswolsky says. “You’ll begin to develop more trust if your employer can see that you’re using the education and training to contribute more to the company.”

Think in terms of your current role. Are there any continuing education workshops or special trainings you could explore?

Ways to Cover Remaining Education Costs on Your Own

Unless your employer has a stellar education program, you’ll likely be on the hook for a portion of the costs. The good news is that you may be able to tackle the expense in a way that won’t jeopardize your financial health.

1. Take Out a Reasonable Student Loan

Again, it’s about looking at your education as a long-term investment. Would pursuing a higher degree put you in a position to earn more over the course of your career? Talking with someone who’s already doing the job you want is a powerful way to get an inside look before making a financial commitment.

All that said, taking out a student loan to support your career goals might be your best bet. Do your research and figure out how much money you’d need to finance your education. From there, weigh the pros and cons of federal loans versus private ones to land on an option that feels like the best fit.

2. Look for Scholarships and Fellowships

When it comes to paying for school, everybody likes free money. Grants and scholarships stand out because unlike loans, they do not need to be repaid. Scholarships take many forms, and you can find ones based on things like merit, your location, heritage, or field of study. Sites like Fastweb and CareerOneStop are great places to start looking.

Fellowships are merit-based grants that sometimes cover a lot more than tuition. In some cases, living expenses may also be on the table. They’re typically focused on specific fields of study, so it pays to check with your school to see what may be available. ProFellow is a trusted fellowship database that could point you in the right direction.

3. Use Cash Windfalls to Pay for Classes Little by Little

If you don’t have much wiggle room in your monthly budget to pay for school, look to periodic cash windfalls to see you through. Everything from tax refunds to work bonuses to pay raises could be earmarked for education. Since this money is separate from your regular paychecks, it can almost feel like free cash.

No matter what, asking your employer to cover your educational costs isn’t a bad idea. It could unlock significant funds to further your education — and, in turn, your career.

Marianne Hayes is a longtime freelance writer and content marketing specialist.

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