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As educational costs continue to increase, tuition assistance is becoming an increasingly valued employee benefit. It's also one that jobseekers should carefully consider when weighing their next career move.

According to the 2016 Employee Benefits Survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, which included responses from 3,490 HR professionals, 55 percent of companies now offer undergraduate educational assistance. Fifty-two percent offer graduate educational assistance.

The IRS limit for tax-free reimbursement for higher-education courses is $5,250 in a given year, so that's the most common reimbursement level that employers offering tuition assistance provide. But companies that are committed to developing employees sometimes offer more.

"What we're starting to see is that organizations that want to be more strategic or competitive with their program are looking at it more holistically and saying, 'We're going to invest more than that in our employees,'" says Jay Titus, senior director of enterprise solutions for EdAssist, a company that helps organizations administer their tuition assistance programs.

Because the $5,250 limit might cover only a course or two, many employers are choosing to reimburse employees at only 50 percent of their tuition costs, while still covering up to that IRS limit in a given year.

"I've seen in general the percentage of reimbursement going down. It used to be more generous, but tuition has gotten so expensive," says Paula Harvey, vice president of human resources for Schulte Building Systems and a member of the SHRM Talent Expertise Panel. Spreading the benefit over more courses in this way may provide employees more encouragement to finish their degree.

At the same time, companies are becoming more strategic in how they structure the benefits. Titus is seeing clients forming partnerships with specific universities and raising their tuition cap limits for specific programs to nudge employees toward programs that provide more return on investment to the organization. For instance, a company might provide the $5,250 limit for general programs, but fully reimburse an M.B.A. program or a specific job-related certificate.

Most commonly, companies will only reimburse for courses in which the student receives a passing grade. 

Companies additionally vary in how soon they let employees take advantage of tuition assistance benefits. "Generally, it's either immediate or within three to six months of starting," Titus says. 

Another growing trend is for companies to offer to repay employees' student loans. "You'll see that among companies that are having trouble recruiting a skill set," Harvey says. "It's a great bargaining chip for young folks with a special skill set or knowledge when they are job hunting."

For now, it's a perk offered by few organizations, however. According to the 2016 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey, only 4 percent of companies contribute to student loan repayment.

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