Employers are currently facing a great deal of pressure to deliver measurable results for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Chief executive officers have made public commitments to advancing equity, particularly in light of the social unrest of 2020. More than 2,000 companies have committed to the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion coalition to cultivate environments that welcome and encourage diverse perspectives. In addition, employees themselves are increasingly comparing companies based on current diversity policies and commitments to evolve; in fact, 70% of job seekers say a company’s commitment to DEI is important.

What’s more, three in five consumers want the brands they interact with to join the conversation around social issues. With mounting pressure and expectations from prospective employees and buyers, talent and human resources leaders are asking themselves, “How do we bring in more diverse employees?”, “How do we provide development opportunities for our underrepresented employee groups?” and “How do we ensure diversity across all levels of our organization?”

Building an Inclusive Workforce Education Program

One of the first places employers should look is their workforce education program. More than two-thirds of jobs will require some post-high-school learning by 2027, and employees who have degrees can expect as much as a 167% salary bump over employees who do not in the most expensive parts of the U.S. Yet employees in underrepresented demographic groups are still experiencing challenges in gaining access to higher education opportunities that can advance careers and support equity in the workplace.

Research shows multiple barriers to education for people of color. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 15% of Hispanic and 21% of Black adults have achieved a Bachelor’s degree, compared to 35% of white adults. In addition, Black college graduates owe, on average, $7,400 more in student loan debt than their white peers.

And according to a recent study we conducted at Bright Horizons EdAssist Solutions, nearly two-thirds of American workers (65%) think that providing education benefits to all employees helps promote racial and gender equality in the workplace.

For companies that are looking to address these inequities, examining and fine-tuning workforce education programs is a great first step. Here are some recommendations for an effective program tailored to the objective of increasing access to education, as well as equity and diversity, in your organization:

  • Provide educational coaching and support for employees going back to school: Educational coaching helps employees find the right program for them and increases their chances of success in their courses and beyond.
  • Remove the need for employees to pay upfront for their education: Financial barriers are one of the most significant obstacles to participation in education programs. Employers can remove the need to pay upfront by paying the school directly. By combining this approach with low-cost education programs, you can offer access to a free degree, which will open opportunities to many more employees.
  • Consider broadening the education options available to employees: More options means more employees can participate. The more employees you can educate, the more opportunity they have to progress in their career, advance their earnings and move into leadership roles.
  • Ensure your education benefits policy is aligned with your organization’s DEI objectives: Does it allow employees to major in diversity and inclusion, women’s studies, African American or East Asian studies, or labor studies? What about a certified diversity professional program or undergraduate diversity studies certificate? These fields give employees the opportunity to expand their knowledge and skills to work with and lead diverse teams.
  • Expand the types of institutions you collaborate with: Strengthen ties with minority-serving institutions (MSIs), including historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs).
  • Add a complementary student loan support program: Support for student loan repayments is also worth considering. Diverse employees are much more likely to have outstanding student debt, which may prevent them from going back to school.
  • Determine whether additional support benefits are required for employees to succeed: For instance, if an employee has children and is struggling to balance work and family, offering a child care benefit would help remove a major barrier to attending class or completing homework.

Inclusive Education Benefits at Work

Many employers use these strategies to create successful, inclusive education benefits programs. As an example, a company in the pharmaceutical distribution industry introduced reduced-cost degree programs with no out-of-pocket expense for employees in an effort to increase participation. As a result, participation for Black employees increased and is even more than twice as high as other employees’ participation.

Similarly, a health care organization took a fresh look at its education program and decided to include an option that allows employees to prepay tuition. Black employees used the prepayment option at a rate 38% higher than white employees, and female employees used it at a rate 70% higher than male employees.

The Footprint for a Diverse Talent Pool

Intentionally designed employer-sponsored education can remove barriers and provide employees from underrepresented groups with the skills needed to advance their career, leading them to high-demand roles with greater security. This growth will improve your talent pool and strengthen your organization now and in the future.