4 pitfalls to avoid when building an academic network

As we enter the next generation of tuition reimbursement—where education benefits are a C-suite priority—companies are still struggling to figure out the best model for a successful program.

Some Fortune 1000 leaders think they should keep it simple with one school. Others don’t want to put restrictions on employees at all, offering them education benefits for any school they choose. Some business leaders only select elite schools, while others opt for community colleges and regional schools so employees can attend in person if they choose. 

While well-intentioned, these are all incomplete frameworks. Best-in-class programs offer a very intentional, curated network that maximizes budget and outcomes. It includes universities that cater to working adults and align to company needs. 

Let’s unpack a few of the most common misconceptions to see where they go wrong.

4 pitfalls to avoid when building an academic network:

“To keep it simple, I want one school in my network.” 

Many think that one option keeps the process streamlined for all involved: employers, employees, and the institution alike. Having a close partnership could help keep everyone aligned and focused on outcomes. Some organizations have also managed to negotiate discounted rates when committing to one university. 

One of the Fortune 500 companies that helped kick off the next generation of education benefits went this route. A few years ago, this large U.S.-based employer announced debt-free college degrees for its hourly workers in partnership with one big-name institution. 

Unfortunately, 20% of their employees couldn’t take advantage of the program because they weren’t accepted to the only institution offered. What was supposed to be a huge win for employees and the company alike ended up garnering negative press and limiting the program’s potential. What’s more, forging the partnership with one university was a hefty burden on the company’s team, taking two years to fully implement.

This gets back to the importance of access and breadth in selecting an academic network. Even if the school meets your other criteria—good outcomes, degrees that fit your business—it will restrict your population in some way. It could limit the number of students accepted, or not provide enough support so that completion rates fall. 

To make sure the program reaches its full potential, offer a range of options so all intended employees can take advantage of the benefit. 

“I want a network with as many options as possible.” 

On the flip side, to build an academic network that works for everyone, some take restrictions off altogether. After all, everyone has different needs and is at a different stage of their educational journey. To guarantee options, companies could offer tuition reimbursement for any college or learning provider of the employee’s choosing. 

While well-intentioned, this approach will quickly backfire. To start, an overwhelming number of options is more likely to deter people from making a decision, but more importantly, an indiscriminate approach means outcomes were not thoroughly evaluated. There are many universities and learning providers that aren’t focused on working adult learners, and as such, they aren’t equipped to support these students well. 

And in addition to all this, organizations would have to cap costs so as not to exceed the budget, which limits how effective the program can be. 

A close partnership with a select number of learning providers ensures that intended employees can take advantage of the program and that they all have a great experience. The right network also helps the program stay centered on the business outcomes that matter while keeping costs in check.

“I want to send my employees to top schools.” 

While the reputation of elite or big-name schools can make them appealing, most of these institutions are not built for working adult students. They have a positive reputation and often have good outcomes, but they are built to serve the traditional student ideal: 18-22 year-olds who progress from high school to college, finish in four years with a degree, and then enter the workforce. 

That’s not the typical employee base. Much of today’s frontline workforce consists of adults who would have to juggle work and family while going back to school. They can’t afford to take on any student debt, and they need support systems in place in order to succeed. Many elite colleges and universities do not have the infrastructure or services to help these students thrive. 

“My employees should have the option to attend classes in person if they want, so I’m going to work with community colleges and other regional options.” 

This thought process comes from a good place, but there are certain limitations.

It’s true that it can sometimes be helpful to provide select access to local schools, particularly for advanced degrees in hands-on fields such as culinary arts or healthcare. But otherwise, community colleges should be low on the priority list. The vast majority of employees will take courses online, as that offers maximum flexibility and provides the best opportunity to balance the competing priorities in their lives. 

To open up options for community colleges, companies should first take a close look at their outcomes. They are generally low cost, but they don’t always meet quality standards or provide enough support services for students. 

These are the four most common problems that education benefits programs face when it comes to an academic network. To learn how to build the most effective program, read the rest of our guide on curating the ideal academic network. 

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Written by Guild Education

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