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N.Y. Volunteer Firefighters Get Free Tuition

By Corey Murray

In a move to recruit more first responders, volunteer fire departments in New York offer tuition reimbursement to fire fighters enrolled at state community colleges.

Community colleges are often cast as launching pads for successful careers. But as volunteer firefighters in New York recently found out, sometimes it’s the career that leads to college.

In an effort to recruit more volunteer firefighters, the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY) launched the Higher Education Learning Plan (HELP) [PDF].

Writing for the Syracuse-based Post-Standard, reporter Dave Tobin described the initiative, which offers New York–based volunteer firefighters 100 percent tuition reimbursement in exchange for maintaining good grades and fulfilling their obligations as emergency workers on behalf of the state.

The program, paid for with $4.2 million in U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant funds, is open to any volunteer firefighter in New York who has fewer than 80 college credits — so long as the volunteer attends the community college closest to his or her home, or one within 50 miles of a primary residence.

Organizers say the incentive, available to eligible firefighters through the spring and fall semesters in 2014 , should help FASNY recruit more volunteers.

“The time and sacrifice our volunteer firefighters give to their communities is commendable, and the FASNY HELP program is the least we can do to show our gratitude for their service,” State Assemblyman Steve Hawley said in a statement.

But the potential advantages of tuition reimbursement programs don’t extend to just students and employers. Colleges also stand to benefit.

Motivated students

As U.S. community colleges look to effectively increase graduation rates, programs such as HELP and others provide a pipeline of motivated learners with a financial incentive to meet — and exceed — their academic goals.

Across the country, community colleges partner with local and regional employers to provide tuition reimbursement for professional students interested in up-skilling or otherwise advancing their careers through continuing education.

Big-time employers, such as Home Depot, UPS and Apple, offer employees educational assistance programs.

The U.S. military has long been a proponent of tuition reimbursement programs, often using the benefits of a college education as a carrot to get more students to enlist in the service.

In almost all cases, participating colleges accept these students with open arms, trusting from experience that corporate and military partners not only will pick up the tab but will also send them learners who are likely to succeed. Part of that trust comes from the fact that traditional reimbursement programs pay up only if participating students complete course requirements, thus creating a financial push for students who might otherwise linger in the system, taking their time to earn a degree or, worse, drop out along the way.

Assistance programs such as these have proved particularly motivating for “nontraditionals,” who often are slow to graduate. These students tend to be older than their classmates and typically juggle family and work responsibilities that interfere with education. Tuition assistance programs have been credited with helping these learners stay focused and motivated and with taking some of the sting out of the cost of a college education.

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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