HR seeks cuts to tuition assistance program

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By Alma Linda Manzanares

amanzanares6@student.alamo.edu 

Cuts to the Employee Tuition Assistance Program, or ETAP, for fall are being considered and expected to go before the Alamo College’s board of trustees in May.

Linda Boyer-Owens, associate vice chancellor of human resources and organizational development, said the program recommendations are part of a human resources audit to improve the efficiency and cost of the program.

She could not provide amounts for how much the program costs or projected savings from the cuts by press time.

The program, detailed under Procedure D.6.1.3 Educational Assistance, was approved April 28, 2009, and amended Jan. 13, 2010.

Boyer-Owens said a problem with the program was employees or their dependents withdrawing from or not successfully completing a course.

She said trying to get employees to reimburse the tuition was “a very inefficient process and not a very good process in terms of employee relations.”

Boyer-Owens said the human resources department worked with Faculty Senate, Super Senate and the Unified Staff Council.

“We want to give everyone the chance to know about it and give us their suggestions,” she said.

The current program covers all employees who qualify for benefits, regardless of their length of service. Retirees are also eligible.

With the current program, district paid all tuition and fees for up to six semester hours and 75 percent of tuition and fees for up to four semesters hours in excess of six; all tuition and fees and release time during work hours equal to the course length for job-related continuing education courses for up to 32 hours per fiscal year; and all tuition and fees for unlimited continuing education courses taken on the employees own time.

The maximum allowance for the current ETAP benefits is $1,700 per fiscal year per employee.

If an employee dropped or completed the course with a grade below a “C,” they would have to reimburse the district. If employment ended within four calendar weeks after the first day of classes of the fall and spring semesters, or during the first week of summer school classes, the employee will be billed for the tuition and fee charges.

The current program also listed adjunct faculty, who do not qualify for benefits, as eligible for limited coverage.

Limited coverage is up to $150 per semester tuition.

An email sent April 1 to all employees on behalf of human resources, detailed recommendations.

According to the April Fools’ Day message, the existing program will be transitioned into a reimbursement program.

Courses covered by the program must be related to a job offered at the Alamo Colleges.

The proposed program would cover full-time employees with at least one year of service and child dependents. Tuition assistance for adjuncts, retirees and spouses will be discontinued.

Tuition assistance will be provided only after the employee or dependent has successfully completed their course work.

Up to $2,200 per academic year to cover tuition and fees, net of financial aid, can be given to employees.

Up to 75 percent of tuition and fees at the Alamo Colleges, net of financial aid, can be given to child dependents.

Tuition assistance for employees will be provided to employees who fall in to two categories: Employees seeking a first associate, bachelor, master’s degree or Ph.D. related to work performed at the Alamo Colleges, or employees seeking to improve their skills related to work performed at the Alamo Colleges although not pursuing a degree.

Employees seeking a first degree must have a degree plan.

For an associate degree, assistance will cover up to the first 60 credit hours, or more only when required by degree plan.

Coverage for private lessons, repeated courses and employees seeking a second degree will be discontinued.

The program will cover credit and non-credit courses as required by an employee supervisor for employees who are not seeking a degree but want to improve their skills related to their current job.

Dependents must have a degree plan to be eligible for tuition assistance for courses taken at the Alamo Colleges. For an associate degree, assistance will cover up to the first 60 credit hours, or more only when required by degree plan.

Anelia Luna, Staff Council president, said the council’s biggest concern is making sure the program still covers kinesiology courses so employees can better their wellness.

“We believe (taking courses to improve wellness) contributes to their performance as employees,” she said.

“It’s a big change and what we’ve discussed is just the need to keep as much of it familiar as possible. … It’s going to change and we know that.”

Luna said she doesn’t see a “big negative outcome” coming from the newly proposed program.

“Change is change. Some people can adjust to it a lot better then others,” she said. “People will still have the opportunity to better there education and that’s a benefit we don’t want to lose.”

Luna said she thinks the new program will be “cleaner.”

“I think that everyone will have a cleaner record of what they’re doing and what they can do and what they need to do with what they’ve chosen,” she said.

Faculty Senate Chair Larry Rosinbaum said he sent an email March 25 to all employees asking for comments to the proposed recommendations.

He said about 40 comments were received. He said some employees wanted to keep the original program and some were concerned that spouses and adjuncts would be cut out.

Rosinbaum said he couldn’t say whether any of the recommendations were reasonable or unreasonable because he doesn’t know enough about it.

“I looked briefly at what was done in the past and I look at what was now and I see them making cuts,” he said.

“The reasons they give, if what their saying is true, the district, because of dollar restraints, are trying to save money.”

Rosinbaum said part of the new recommendations is to control abuse to the program when employees or dependents would take the same class twice or not finish the class.

“You may think about the spouses and the adjuncts, well why not? Well, the reality is not too many of them used it,” Rosinbaum said.

Last year, eight retirees and 23 adjuncts were covered by the tuition assistance program.

Jerry Townsend, Adjunct Faculty Council chair, said he doesn’t agree with adjuncts being excluded from the benefit because they are involved in direct services to the students.

“I can see having a limit maybe but not excluding them entirely,” he said.

Townsend said benefits, such as tuition assistance, is one of the reasons why adjuncts choose to teach at the Alamo Colleges.

“We’re already having trouble getting adjuncts in many fields. We don’t add any salary … and then we take a benefit. It sounds like this is not a good place that values adjuncts,” he said.

Townsend says there’s a better learning environment for students if the district attracts employees that are motivated, hard working and value education.

He said employees who meet those characteristics want the ETAP benefit in order for themselves to grow and improve.

Townsend said a lot of the recommendations, including excluding first year employees, retirees and spouses from the program and not offering coverage of private lessons and repeated courses, are understandable.

He said by offering ETAP, the district is telling employees that education is important and they support employees in taking advantage of improving themselves.

“So to remove part of it is making the opposite statement that education is not something we’re willing to pay for or support,” Townsend said.

He said he appreciates that employee opinions are being considered and arguments are being heard.

“Whatever happens, we’ll take into accountable ideas from a lot of people,” Townsend said.

“We want to retain the idea of encouraging our employees in the district to advance themselves. That’s what community colleges are about in the first place is helping people climb the ladder of success in life and if we do it for students and we don’t do it for our employees, I think we’re doing the students a disservice,” he said.

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