Is it time to move up or move on in your career? Going back to school online is a great way to hit the reset button and add new skills to your resume. While it’s easy to get excited about pursuing education, finding the money to make it happen can be trickier. The good news is, there are probably hidden opportunities within your company to cover the cost. 

Employer-funded education is becoming more common as companies are seeing their investments pay off in employee retention. According to the LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, 94 percent of employees say they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career. This means employees want professional development plans and educational budgets—and organizations are listening. 

Larger companies like Starbucks, UPS, and AT&T are now offering education reimbursements as an added perk, but smaller companies are following the trend. Sometimes all you have to do is ask—and with just a little preparation, you could save you hundreds off tuition while keeping your day job.

These tips will help you get the conversation started with a clear plan to go back to school without going into debt. 

Do your homework on company policy 

Before you start mapping out your argument, reach out to a member of HR and read up on company policies. Your organization might already have a tuition reimbursement program set up. There will likely be certain requirements, partnering institutions, or caps on how much they will cover. 

Even if it isn’t explicitly stated, there is also a chance that professional development budgets (typically used for conferences or workshops) can be used for employee tuition. This is good to know as you put together your proposal. 

If your employer does not have a program in place, you will have to put together a pitch with clear expectations on your own. This can be a great opportunity in disguise, as you will be able to come up with terms that work best for both parties. 

Know your value

Think about the role you play in your organization and the value you bring to the table. Did your work save the company time or attract new customers? Do you make the office a better place to be? Consider all the hard and soft skills that make you a dynamic employee that is worth investing in.  

Knowing your value not only puts your education in perspective your employer, but it also gives you some confidence before you make the ask. 

Explain the benefits on both sides

Time to get into a manager’s mindset. The benefits of going back to school will be clear to you, but your boss might need some convincing. Be able to articulate exactly why it is in your company’s best interest to invest in your education. Consider the following questions: 

  • What will you be able to bring back to your role from your classes?
  • How can you align your goals with company goals?
  • Will you become a better leader or learn cutting-edge technology?
  • How will you manage your time?

Speaking of time management, online courses and certificate programs have made it easier than ever to balance work and school. Choosing a program like Columbia College Chicago Online, which was designed for working professionals, gives you an added benefit to highlight. 

This is also a good time to consider how your company plans to grow in the next few years. If you can show that you are thinking long-term for yourself and the organization, this indicates both loyalty and insight that will build your case. 

Practice your pitch

Knowing the benefits and being able to speak to them clearly are two very different things. Before you meet with your boss, think through any concerns she or he might raise and have responses ready. 

Come prepared with the cost breakdown, takeaways from the program, timelines for completion, and ideas for how you can share what you’ve learned. This preparation will help you be more composed and confident, making it more likely for your employer to say yes. 

Keep in mind that even if you make the perfect pitch, odds are you will have to do some negotiating. Be willing to compromise without backing down if the initial answer isn’t what you had hoped. 

Get it in writing

Getting tuition reimbursement can be a long process, so be sure to document any conversations you have with your boss. Send a recap email after you meet to outline what you agreed upon or plans to continue the conversation. Being diligent and organized throughout the process is just another vote of confidence to show your boss how passionate you are. 

However, if you are eligible for tuition reimbursement, be prepared to sign a contract. This written agreement will typically outline reporting responsibilities, deadlines for completion, and general rights for both parties. Look through the contract carefully and be open to negotiating. 

Have a backup plan

Getting your education fully funded by your employer is the dream, but it is important to have backup options. Sometimes budgets are too tight, or managers can’t be convinced. Whatever the case may be, stay persistent while looking for other financial resources. 

There are scholarship opportunities and grant money available in most industries once you start looking for them. You could also consider asking for a raise or additional benefits to curb the cost of your education. 

Regardless of the outcome, having this conversation with your boss is a great first step to refocusing on your education. By working together, sharing the information you learn, and getting the financial support you need, going back to school can be a win-win for everybody. 

Read more: How to Network in a Creative Industry