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Tuition Reimbursement - What is the Price You Really Pay?

Q. Can an employer require you to stay employed at their firm if they have paid for your education?

A. Employers and employees enter into many kinds of agreements, for example, being employed for certain salary and benefits. There are other types of arrangements which are governed by state or federal law which are not subject to agreements which supersede these laws.

Attorney Gary M. Feldman, an expert in employment law at Davis Malm in Boston, explains, "The short answer to the question is "yes", but only where there is an express agreement between the employer and employee whereby the employee agrees to remain employed for a certain period of time in return for the tuition benefit.

Massachusetts is an "at-will" state, meaning that in the absence of an express contract (written or oral), an employee is free to leave employment at any time. Similarly, as employees are aware, an employer is free to end the employment relationship at any time (as long as the decision is not the result of a discriminatory intent).

If an employer who is providing a tuition benefit to an employee wishes to retain that employee for a period of time in return for the payment of tuition expenses, the employer should require the employee to sign a contract by which the employee agrees to remain with the employer for a specified number of years. Alternatively, an employer may require an employee to sign an agreement to repay some or all of the tuition if the employee voluntarily departs before the end of the retention period. Such a form of retention agreement would be lawful and enforceable. This is similar to a relocation allowance, where an employer agrees to advance the employee a stated amount of dollars to relocate, but includes a provision in the offer letter requiring repayment of the relocation advance if the employee departs within a specified number of months. In the absence of such an agreement, the employment will default to an "at-will" employment and the employee is free to leave the employment without consequence after having received the tuition benefit."

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