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More companies are footing the bill for their employees to go to college

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The University of Connecticut is among the colleges and universities offering options to some companies' employees. SEAN FLYNN / UCONN PHOTO

A growing number of hourly-wage workers in Connecticut are gaining access to higher education as several of the state’s top employers in retail and hospitality expand tuition assistance programs to attract and retain staff.

The highly competitive labor market has spurred companies like Amazon, Target, Walmart and most recently the Mohegan Sun Casino & Resort — which employ thousands of people in Connecticut — to offer education benefits for full-time and part-time employees, emulating and expanding on programs popularized by Starbucks in 2015. As the unemployment rate ticks downward, companies have been scaling up tuition assistance in an effort to attract increasingly in-demand labor.

“I think it makes a lot of sense,” said Tim Larson, executive director of the state office of higher education. “The larger employers recognize talented people, and they need to be able to stay ahead of the curve.”

In March, Amazon announced partnerships with the University of Connecticut and Capital Community College, offering full college tuition, industry certifications and other programs to its 18,000 in-state employees after 90 days of work. At Walmart, 427 of the company’s 8,900 Connecticut employees have taken advantage of the “Live Better U” program covering online education at several schools, which is available to employees as soon as they start working. Target’s new “debt-free” program pays higher education institutions directly to cover a portion of education costs for employees pursuing various degrees, including master’s degree-level programs. Home Depot, UPS, FedEx and many other large employers also now offer tuition assistance.

And last month, Mohegan Gaming unveiled its own partnership with for-profit, Waterbury-based Post University, offering discounted tuition to 8,000 casino employees, 2,000 Mohegan Tribe members and their families, as well as players on the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun team.

Bobby Reese, Post University’s chief operating officer, said the school has partnered with more than 250 businesses to design customized training for their staff and to provide tuition benefits to strengthen employee recruitment and retention. Interest in the latter, he said, has grown in the last few years.

“Something happened to workers in the pandemic,” Reese said. “They’d wake up in the morning, and they’d think, ‘I just don’t want to do this anymore.’” Companies had to respond, he said. “They came late to the dance. I think we should have done this years ago.”

A spokeswoman for UConn said Amazon’s program follows in the footsteps of an agreement the university holds with defense manufacturer Raytheon Technologies, which sends around 200 staff to UConn each semester. Several other companies pay for their employees to take classes at UConn, either directly or through reimbursement, spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz wrote in an email.

“We look forward to welcoming students from Amazon and other employers and appreciate how much their life experiences and participation enriches our campus communities,” Reitz wrote.

Higher education — even at public institutions — has become unaffordable for many Americans interested in pursuing a degree. As per-student public funding has fallen, tuition rates have pushed higher. And private employers are stepping in to fill the gap.

Connecticut State Colleges and Universities work with several health care organizations to provide training and workforce development. In partnership with Manchester Community College, a consortium of companies known as the Aerospace Components Manufacturers has set aside funding to train their workforce — a necessity in today’s rapidly changing advanced manufacturing sector.

The Office of Higher Education’s Larson described those programs as a “double bonus” for companies, whose employees can gain expertise without the company having to absorb the full cost of on-site training.

There are also tax benefits for companies that cover their employees’ tuition.

Up to $5,250 per employee in tuition payments, reimbursements or credits is tax-deductible for the company. And beginning this year, Connecticut businesses can take advantage of an additional state tax credit if they provide certain student loan repayment assistance to their employees.

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