How to use education benefits to create a more inclusive workplace
Attaining and developing appropriate skills is the key to growth within your career and your company. More than two-thirds of jobs will require some post-high-school learning by 2027 and employees who have degrees can expect as much as a 167% salary bump over those who do not.
Yet employees in underrepresented demographic groups are still experiencing challenges in gaining access to higher education opportunities that can advance careers and provide equity in the workplace. Research shows multiple barriers to education for people of color. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 15% of Hispanic and 21% of Black adults have been able to achieve a Bachelor's degree, compared to 35% of white adults. In addition, Black college graduates owe, on average, $7,400 more in student loan debt than their white peers.
Many businesses have made explicit statements about their commitment to reducing inequity. In fact, more than 400 companies have now signed the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion to cultivate environments where diverse perspectives are welcomed and encouraged. And according to a recent study we conducted at Bright Horizons EdAssist Solutions, nearly two-thirds of American workers (65%) think that providing education benefits to all employees helps promote racial and gender equality in the workplace.
Employers are looking for positive practical steps they can take to increase equity amongst employees. Increasing access to education is a powerful tool to support those objectives.
How to create an inclusive education program
An analysis of our own clients' education programs has shown us that retention rates improve for those employees participating in a tuition program compared to employees from the same demographic group that do not. Specifically, there was a 5% higher retention rate for Black employees, 10% higher retention rate for Hispanic employees and 12% higher retention rate for female employees – showing that education assistance drives higher retention among diverse employee groups.
Here are some recommendations for an effective program tailored to the overall objective of increasing access to education and increasing equity and diversity in your organization.
- Review your education assistance policy and practices for inclusivity: A good place to start is to take a fresh look at your overall program and policy. Are there constraints within the policy or the way the program is implemented which would make it more difficult for some groups of employees to participate? For example, is the program easy to use for employees who may not have a work email address, or easy access to a computer, or who do not have a fixed work schedule every week? Do you communicate and promote the program internally in way where all employees will have the same awareness and knowledge of it?
- Remove the need for employees to pay up-front for their education: Financial barriers are one of the most significant barriers to participation in education assistance. Employers can remove the need to pay up front by paying the school directly. By combining this with lower-cost education programs, you ideally will be offering a completely free degree to employees, with no money up front, which will open up opportunities to many more employees.
- Provide coaching and/or mentorship for employees going back to school: Educational coaching is particularly valuable for diverse employees who tend to have less educational experience for themselves and their families.
- Include options for high school diplomas and English language skills: Provide support for high school diplomas and English language skills, for those foundational skills and requirements before an employee starts their degree.
- Consider a complementary student loan support program: Support for student loan repayments is also worth considering as diverse employees are much more likely to have outstanding student debt, which may be preventing them from going back to school to perhaps finish off their degree.
- Consider whether additional support benefits are required for employees to succeed: For instance, if an employee has children and is already balancing work and family, offering a child care benefit would help remove a major barrier to attending class or completing homework. Being open-minded about providing additional benefits to help people of color progress in the organization is an important consideration.
Programs that work
We have seen many employers use these steps and considerations to create a successfully inclusive education benefits program.
As an example, a client in the pharmaceuticals distribution industry introduced reduced-cost degree programs with no out-of-pocket expense for employees in an effort to increase participation among all employees. As a result, participation for Black employees increased and is now more than twice as high as other employees.
Similarly, a healthcare organization we work with took a fresh look at their education program and decided to include an option that allows employees to prepay tuition. Black employees utilized the prepayment option at a rate 38% higher than White employees, and female employees used it at a rate 70% higher than male employees.
Building a more diverse and loyal employee base
In summary, intentionally designed employer-sponsored education programs not only support company DEI objectives, but more importantly serve to remove barriers to education by lowering costs and removing the need to pay upfront, increase opportunities to participate, and ultimately increase retention and build a wider, more diverse talent pool – an ROI that benefits any organization's bottom line.