Eleven Union Health employees this past week gathered in a third-floor room of the Union's Professional Office Building in Terre Haute to take an introduction to business class taught by Ivy Tech faculty member Brandee Burdette.
Many of the employees — managers, supervisors and administrative assistants — have taken some college courses, but not all of them have. In January, they began a journey to pursue additional education through a partnership between Union and Ivy Tech called Achieve Your Degree, a tuition deferral program.
The program — offered statewide — enables companies that offer tuition benefits to assist their employees in pursuing their education with minimal up-front cost to the student.
Among those participating is Trisha Greenwell, who has worked for Union since 2001 and is now a Union Medical Group [formerly UAP] practice manager; she oversees day-to-day operations for several specialties, including ob-gyn, the diabetes clinic, urology, pulmonology and the sleep lab.
She's been in her new position for the past few months and, as part of that new role, she's pursuing an associate degree in business administration through the new program. Eventually, she hopes to obtain a bachelor's degree.
A 2001 graduate of Terre Haute South Vigo High School, Greenwell says going back to school "is a little stressful. I definitely have some self discipline I have to do now. I have to take time to do homework" and prepare for classes.
In addition to her full-time job, she is married and she and her husband have a stepdaughter at home. Her Monday night class is face-to-face with the instructor, but two other classes, including English composition, are online.
Having a degree is important for her and it offers potential for professional advancement at Union, she said.
Achieve Your Degree "is a really good opportunity," she said. Not only is she pursuing her education with other Union employees, but tuition is deferred until the semester is over.
As one of its employee benefits, Union will pay her tuition cost, provided she maintains at least a C grade.
"We are really excited about this program," said Sally Zuel, Union Hospital vice president for human resources. "We want to develop our employees and for them to succeed in whatever way possible. When they succeed, our organization succeeds."
Achieve Your Degree helps businesses retain workers and train them to advance; it also helps meet state workforce needs at a time of low unemployment.
Ivy Tech works with employer partners to offer tuition deferral based on the company's current policy. Deferring the tuition allows employees to earn certificates and degrees at Ivy Tech with no up front cost to them.
Ivy Tech defers the tuition payment until 30 days after the end of each semester.
While not mandatory, AYD students can be coached through a financial aid application process, so students and employers only owe any remaining tuition after all federal and state financial aid has been applied.
At Union, the new program began in January, and the employees are working on their associate degree in business administration with plans to continue through ISU to get their bachelor’s, Zuel said.
"It lets full-time employees go back to school" through a combination of online and on campus coursework, Zuel said. In this case, "campus" is at the Professional Office Building, across the street from the hospital.
Employees take a business class in-person for three hours on Mondays, and they take one or two other classes online.
"It's relatively new to us, but very exciting. It's a wonderful partnership," Zuel said. One of the goals was to make it easier, and less intimidating, for employees to return to school.
"When you ask people to go back to school, you want them in an environment they are comfortable. If you have people coming to school who have had a gap in their education ... they also need additional support," Zuel said.
Ivy Tech worked with the hospital to design a program, which was tailored to meet their needs. It also provides on-site application assistance, academic advising and other services for AYD students at their place of employment.
Union Health does have a maximum amount it pays in tuition, but Zuel anticipated that for the majority of AYD students, tuition will be covered. Union does not cover books. "We think people need some financial commitment," she said.
According to Ivy Tech, each employer has a different policy with regard to how much it will pay of employees' tuition. Employers also have options of how they want the program to work.
Program is growing
Achieve Your Degree is offered through Ivy Tech statewide.
Currently, Ivy Tech has 173 active agreements with employer partners, including seven in Terre Haute, said Stacy Townsley, Ivy Tech's executive director of operations and implementation/workforce alignment.
A total of 2,814 employee-students have benefited since the program began in 2015-16.
This spring, 1,248 students are enrolled. That's about a 30 percent increase from last spring.
The majority of Achieve Your Degree students are part-time, associate degree-seekers taking an average six credit hours per semester.
As of the 2017-18 academic year, 278 Achieve Your Degree students had earned 470 credentials, including certificates and associate degrees. About 75 percent of all credentials awarded to date are at the certificate level; about half are in business and logistics/supply chain, while 20 percent are in healthcare.
The certificates earned typically are “stackable” into the student’s associate degree program.
Achieve Your Degree began in fall 2015, when Old National Bank approached the Evansville Ivy Tech campus about professional development and additional credentials for employees. The campus developed the program, which is now statewide, Townsley said.
The strength of the program is that it defers tuition costs, which helps employees who can't afford the upfront costs — even if it is reimbursed later.
The program also focuses on student success and makes sure they have extra help if needed, such as tutoring, and they are aware of resources available to them, Townsley said. Students often take courses on campus, but in some cases, courses are more easily offered at the business site; other classes are online.
Another student in the Terre Haute class is Pam Smith, director of clinic operations for Union Medical Group.
"I have started and stopped toward my business degree many times in my career here," Smith said. "My position doesn't really require it ... I've been with the medical system for 40 years. I'm doing this because I want to — to see if I can do this."
The program "is going well," she said. Being together as a cohort is helpful because the students can consult with each other about different things. "Just the camaraderie of all of us really helps ... we've all emailed or texted each other."
The instructors "have been awesome," she said. She is taking two other classes on-line, English and math.