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July 10, 2003

Use of tuition benefits is a win-win situation, CGS staffer tells employees

Your Pitt job feels like a dead end. Your ambitions have waned. Your goals are fuzzy. In short, your life’s in a rut.

Why not take advantage of working for a prestigious higher education institution by using your employee educational benefits?

That’s the message of Dean Julian, educational consultant and national certified counselor at the College of General Studies (CGS) Learning Solutions, the umbrella organization for all adult and continuing education opportunities offered at CGS.

Julian is himself the poster child for using Pitt’s employee educational benefits having earned a B.S. in psychology (1995), an M.Ed. in psychology in education, counseling/student personnel services (1997), and an Ed.D. in administration and policy studies in higher education (2001), all while climbing the economic and job ladders from janitor to CGS administrator.

Many staff already take advantage of their educational benefits. Of Pitt’s approximately 6,000 total staff employees, about 1,000 staff members used the tuition remission benefit to take at least one course during the 2001-2002 academic year, according to information provided by the Office of Institutional Research.

But many more staff are reluctant to take the plunge. “I hear the same fears from staff over and over,” said Julian, who leads a Human Resources workshop extolling the advantages of employees taking courses at Pitt. “There are two scary areas: the process of starting and applying, and the psychological barriers. Fear of the process ignites other fears, including the fear of failure, which is the No. 1 issue I hear from staff.”

Julian’s 5-year-old employee educational benefits workshop, offered in the fall and spring, draws an average of 20 staff members per session, he said. About a third of the participants enroll in at least one course after the workshop.

“Believe me, I’ve heard it all,” he said. “’I’m not smart enough.’ ‘It takes too much time to earn a degree.’ ‘I’m really too busy.’ I can’t afford it.’ ‘I’m too tired after working all day.’ ‘I have family responsibilities.’ ‘I’m not sure I can handle the material.’ ‘I don’t want to come back to campus.’ ‘I can’t compete with younger students.’”

All of these are legitimate fears, but all of them can be overcome, he said.

Not that it’s easy, he added quickly. “I tell the workshop participants: ‘You’re in the big leagues now.’ These courses require self-discipline, self-motivation and good planning strategies. But I also tell them that, if you have a good work ethic, that will definitely carry over to your studies. With the support structure in place at the University, [staff] can do it, and the rewards are absolutely worth it,” he said.

Among the advantages are potential job and personal mobility, enhanced self-confidence and exposure to other viewpoints, including fellow students’ and professors’, in addition to personal enrichment.

Julian cited the availability of program options (credit or non-credit courses; degree, certificate and pre-professional programs), strong academic, career and administrative advising and support systems, accessibility of class times (day, evening, Saturday) and proximity of class locations (on and off campus) as the pillars for tailoring an individual’s educational needs and desires.

If that flexibility of choices doesn’t convince you, how about saving money to the tune of $35,000 while earning a degree at Pitt? he asked. That’s about the savings difference between taking a degree part time using employee tuition reimbursement benefits and walking in from the street and going four years full time here, he said. “Sure it takes longer, but it’s a great investment.”

According to Ron Frisch, associate vice chancellor for Human Resources, Pitt offers one of the best educational benefits plans in western Pennsylvania. This type of benefit “is quickly becoming obsolete in corporate America,” Frisch said. “To be able to work in a competitive, multi-diverse community where one can academically better oneself is a priceless opportunity. Such a program at a nationally recognized University can do nothing but foster new directions and growth for the participants.”

If a 120-credit degree program seems too overwhelming at first, an employee can enroll in a certificate program that counts toward degree requirements, Julian said. “Certificate programs give you more immediate marketability,” he said. “Depending on your job, a certificate in information systems design, for example, can enhance your career opportunities. In addition, [certificates] are ‘married’ to degree programs. Those 18 credits will count toward your 120.”

At first, the application process scares those with an aversion to paperwork or with low self-esteem, Julian said. “But once they have the information, it doesn’t seem so scary. The process is really simple. And once you’ve applied, from then on you’re just signing up for classes, but all the paperwork’s done,” he said, although staff who do not enroll for courses in three consecutive terms are asked to re-apply. “Even then, we have you on file, and it’s easier the second time around. Stop in, stop out, we call it. It happens all the time.”

An employee fills out two application forms, forwards the high school or GED transcript and other postsecondary transcripts, pays the $35 application fee and decides whether to write the optional personal statement of goals. That’s it.

(Staff who are interested in signing up for courses should contact Julian directly at 4-1550; e-mail: Applications for fall term must be completed by Aug. 11, Julian said.)

“And I also deal with all the misinformation that’s floating around,” Julian said. For example: “I hear: ‘My credits are too old. They won’t be accepted.’ Where did you hear that? I say.” There is no statute of limitations on transferring credits, (subject to a maximum of 90 from a four-year institution and 60 from a two-year institution) except in a drastically evolved field such as computer science, Julian said. “But history’s the same, and the social sciences and the humanities. One of my success stories is, only a few years back, a man transferred 80 credits he earned in 1955 and went on to get his degree here.”

College-Level Examination Program credits also are applicable toward many degree programs, although the number of acceptable CLEP credits varies by program.

Other myths include: A GED is not adequate background for an applicant. All classes are on campus and at night. All terms are 15 weeks.

“One of the biggest advantages at Pitt are the options,” Julian maintained. “I ask my students: How many of you know that we have classes in Monroeville and Mt. Lebanon? That we have a Saturday College? That we offer External Studies, with self-instruction guides? That we have morning classes, lunch-time classes, late afternoon classes? That in summer there are 4-week terms, 6-week terms, 12-week terms, 15-week terms? How many know that in many cases there are loans available even to those using tuition reimbursement benefits? How many know that CGS has scholarship money available?”

Julian added that Pitt advisers are trained in helping staff meet academic requirements, but also offer tips for balancing work, family and education.

• Don’t get in over your head. Do take only one course to start.

• Don’t get behind on assignments. Do let your family know that you’ll need help doing some things they rely on you to do.

• Don’t try to do it on your own. Do work with an adviser.

• Don’t procrastinate. Do learn to say no.

“The support system here is fantastic,” Julian said. “At Learning Solutions we have seminars on time management, personal goal-setting, note-taking, memorization techniques, test-taking strategies, computer workshops, writing workshops — whatever the support you need, it’s all there for you.”

Julian often cites himself as an example in the workshops. “I talk about External Studies. This is great for some people, but I liked the classroom interaction, and these classes just wouldn’t work for me.”

Julian said that about 20-25 percent of those staff who enroll stop after one term, which is why he stresses good advising and prudent course selections for the critical first term.

According to Julian, current educational research data indicate that 90 percent of business and corporate employers look for candidates with a liberal arts degree. “The individual degree itself — what your major is — is not as important as having a degree. Employers are looking for the skill-set: Can you articulate, both in writing and orally? Can you think critically, analyze, problem-solve?” Julian said.

“These trends are why I’m doing this workshop: an educated worker is a better worker; it gives workers more potential for earnings, it gives them more self-esteem. It’s a win-win for the employee and for the University. I know what it did for me: Tuition reimbursement changed my life completely; my life was bad, with no purpose and in a rut. I was unhappy, and working in jobs with a ceiling and limited income levels. I want to give back to other employees, by showing what it did for me.”

—Peter Hart

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