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5 Takeaways from Disney's Tuition Benefits

Inspire learning by breaking with traditional reimbursement practices

Mickey mouse and minnie mouse in a float.

updated Oct. 24, 2019

To add a dash of magic to their education benefits, The Walt Disney Co. has broken with many of the restrictions that employers commonly place on tuition reimbursement offerings. Those limitations are meant to help control the cost of tuition assistance, but they often exclude employees outright from continuing their education through employer-sponsored programs, or dissuade them from participating, Disney's benefit leaders maintain.

Launched in August 2018, the Disney program—known as "Aspire"—covers 100 percent of tuition costs and provides support services to employees as they work toward their degrees. It allows access to 11 universities and technical schools, including online programs by the University of Arizona and the University of Florida.

Not Your Usual Tuition Program

Earlier this year, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, which represents benefit plan sponsors, surveyed employers about their tuition benefit practices. The results, based on more than 770 responses from employers throughout the U.S., showed that more than half of organizations limit reimbursement to job-, work- or business-related courses. A large majority of organizations reimburse covered expenses after the end of study, and most have payback provisions for workers who leave the company soon afterwards, with the most common tenures required to avoid payback being 12 or 24 months.

Disney's Aspire program takes another approach.

While few employers can invest $150 million over five years as Disney plans to do, others can take inspiration from Disney's approach to add a bit of magic to their own programs. Here are five features of the Aspire program that other employers may want to consider emulating:

1. Pay tuition upfront rather than reimbursing employees afterward.

As long as employees choose coursework from the network of options Disney has established—even if the courses don't mesh with their current work at the company—the program pays employees' tuition directly. Requiring employees to pay tuition out of their own pockets when they register for courses can be hard for many, even if they are reimbursed later, said Jayne Parker, the company's senior executive vice president and chief HR officer.

Disney also reimburses program participants for required books and course materials.

2. Help employees get back to school.

Disney provides coaching support when employees apply for admission and throughout their study programs to help them complete their coursework.

The process of choosing a program, applying, obtaining transcripts and handling other details involved in returning to school can be daunting for employees who have been out of school for any length of time, Parker said. To provide support during this process, Disney offers coaching through a vendor.

"Coaches provide support in person and through FaceTime and e-mail," Parker noted. "Part of this can involve learning to be a student again [and] helping the employee gain confidence that they can finish their degree" or any other credential they're pursuing.

3. Be flexible.

Disney lets employees study for positions they aspire to achieve but doesn't force them to stay in those jobs for a certain period to receive tuition payment. "They don't owe us anything," Parker said.

Many employees pursue education that will help them on the job, with high school equivalency and English as a second language particularly popular. Still, Parker noted two Disney employees who used the program to pursue education in areas of study that had no immediate relevance to their jobs. "One of the employees had been pursuing a nursing degree when she had to stop to care for her grandmother," she said. "She had always wanted to be a nurse, and the program gave her the opportunity to do that." The other employee pursued an HVAC repair certification.

4. Provide study space.

Disney provides onsite "study hall" spaces by repurposing hotel and other company areas so employees can do schoolwork before or after work or during breaks.

In addition, employees can use study hall spaces to meet with coaches and to talk with peers who are also balancing work and study.

Employers that want study halls but have limited space can let employees use empty offices or conference rooms. Given the proliferation of online courses, these study areas can also become classrooms for employees with tablets or laptops and a set of earbuds or headphones.

5. Link it to career opportunities.

Disney, whenever possible, helps its student employees pursue new opportunities within the company related to their coursework, certifications and degree programs. Through events such as employee expos, Aspire program participants meet the leaders of the company's lines of business and learn about options to move up and the required qualifications, so they don't have to go to another organization to take their careers to the next level.

Companies that want to do something similar can work with employees and employees' managers to identify ways that those with completed coursework or new credentials can use their education in their current position or advance into new roles with greater responsibilities.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Educational Assistance Programs]

Do What You Can

Companies with fewer resources can identify options that fit within their budgets. "While it's impossible to match the tuition benefit programs of some larger companies, it doesn't mean that nothing can be done," said Dmytro Okunyev, founder of New York-based technology company Chanty, which has fewer than 50 employees. 

The company relies on Internet-based learning platforms such as Courser and Udemy to support employee education. "We don't limit our employees just to the skill set they use at work," Okunyev said. "It doesn't cost us that much, and the employees appreciate the freedom they have and the ability to learn on the company's budget."

Education Benefits Sought and Appreciated

Findings from the 2019 Working Learner Index, a survey of 30,000 U.S. workers who are going back to school while on the job, show that:

  • For Generation Z, the youngest workers, education benefits were the most desirable benefit other than health care, outpacing even paid sick/vacation leave and retirement savings programs.
  • Nearly half (49 percent) of U.S. workers taking advantage of tuition benefits would not have pursued education if their employers did not offer tuition reimbursement.
  • Nearly 90 percent of respondents believe automation will impact their industry or job function, but 84 percent say that the skills or degree earned through their employer helped to prepare them for the future of work.


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