Planned changes to staff tuition assistance may decrease use of program

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Sonik | Daily Texan Staff

The University is planning to implement restrictions on tuition assistance for University staff to comply with an updated state law passed in 2015, said Steven Blackwell, Human Resources
benefits manager.

The Staff Tuition Assistance Program reduces tuition for eligible staff members who would like to pursue a degree or take classes at the University. Currently, staff members can apply to receive tuition to cover either one class or three-credit hours a semester, Blackwell said.

In 2015, the Texas Legislature updated the State Employees Training Act, requiring state employees to gain approval from a third party that courses relate to current or prospective job duties before receiving tuition assistance, Blackwell said.

 

“Essentially, we always want to make sure that our programs are compliant with statutes by the legislature,” Blackwell said. “We certainly want to do that in this particular instance.” 

Blackwell said the University delayed applying the change, because it had to review the policies before considering implementation. However, there is no set date for the change to begin. 

“Ultimately, we’re still going to take Staff Council leadership’s feedback, but at the end of the day … we are going to do what is (compliant with state law),” Blackwell said. 

Dannielle LaMonte, development specialist in the Moody College of Communication, said she received tuition assistance to pursue a degree in history and graduated in May 2019. She said if she had to go through a supervisor, she is not sure if her degree would have been approved. 

“(The Staff Tuition Assistance Program) would stop being a benefit because there are a lot of jobs that are not necessarily aligned with the degree plans that are offered (at the University),” LaMonte said. “It just makes it harder to even attempt it.”

Staff Council chair Sandra Catlett said taking classes at the University improves staff members’ work because it teaches them skills such as writing and communication.

“You might be being trained to be an astronomer … but when you actually get a job as an astronomer, you’re also going to also going to need to interact with people and run meetings and write papers, etc,” Catlett said.

On average, about 158 staff members used the program in fall 2018, and it is consistently about 150 staff members each semester, Blackwell said. 

He said most staff members have to apply to the University and fill out an application as if they were an incoming or transfer student. They must be accepted to receive the tuition assistance, Blackwell said. 

Blackwell said the main reason the participation number is so low is because of the admissions process.

Catlett said adding further restrictions may further reduce the number of staff who use the program.

“I personally … (am) dreading that rule change coming when it happens,” Catlett said. “It gives more power to a supervisor or gives more opportunity for a supervisor to say no (to tuition assistance).”

Blackwell said he could not speculate on the impact this change could have on staff members who are considering the tuition assistance program.