A position at the UW comes with a vast package of benefits. One of the most enticing perks is the tuition exemption program. It’s also one the most elusive.
As great as the program sounds — you get to “go back to school for free” — many people have trouble understanding it. This article hopes to demystify the process, clearing up some common questions you might have as well as inspiring you to look into the program if you haven’t heard about it.
Fair warning: There are restrictions to work around and some red tape to power through. But don’t let that discourage you. Hundreds of your colleagues utilize the tuition exemption program each quarter, including some earning degrees. Maybe you’ll be next?
What is tuition exemption?
The tuition exemption program allows Washington state-funded universities and community colleges to waive the cost of six credits each quarter for people who are working as state employees. In the quarter system, six credits are roughly equivalent to one class.
Do you qualify?
You may qualify if your position is at least 50% time and salaried rather than hourly (fixed-duration appointments are regarded as hourly). If you’re professional staff, you may qualify for the program on your first day of work. Classified staff must wait for a six-month probationary period to pass.
Here’s a sample list of state-funded universities and colleges (Note: These are subject to change, and this is not a complete list).
- University of Washington (Seattle, Bothell, Tacoma)
- Washington State University
- Central Washington University
- Evergreen State College
- Bellevue College
- North Seattle College
- Everett Community College
- Edmonds Community College
- Shoreline Community College
- Seattle Central Community College
- Highline Community College
- Green River Community College
So where can you go to school? The list, which is subject to change, includes state-funded four-year schools like the three UW campuses, Evergreen State College and Washington State University, as well as two-year colleges such as North Seattle and Shoreline.
That’s pretty exciting, but there are a few caveats:
- Not all programs at these schools participate. At the UW, for example, the Evans School of Public Affairs will exempt their courses from the program beginning in autumn.
- Fee-based and self-sustaining courses and programs, such as Continuing Education, are not included because they don’t receive direct financial support from the state.
- Staff training, conferences, and so on are not covered since the program is designed for college-level courses.
To enroll, or not to enroll…
First you’ll have to decide which path you’ll start down: matriculated or non-matriculated.
- Non-matriculated student. Non-matriculated status means you’re not enrolled at the school as a degree-seeking student. This would be the case if you want to enrich your life by taking a fun course at night, or you want to improve on-the-job by taking a class that will help you thrive at work.
- Matriculated student. These are the brave, driven souls who want to pursue a degree while working. Only six of their credits will be covered each quarter, but that will certainly lighten the load along the way.
In the process of making this decision, you’ll probably want to talk to your supervisor. You may want to give them a heads-up that they’ll need to sign your employee status paperwork and address whether classes taken during work hours could qualify for release time or will need to be made up. Even if you’re just taking one course, you might need to arrange taking off work early on certain days and making up the hours later.
Taking a class at UW Seattle
If you know that you want to take classes at UW Seattle, start with the Office of the Registrar.
You’ll need to (1) obtain student status and (2) prove that you’re qualified for tuition exemption.
Matriculated. If you hope to be a matriculated undergraduate or graduate student, you can apply to the UW when an application window opens and pay the same fees as any other applicant. Keep in mind that you can also earn non-matriculated credits and apply them to an undergraduate or graduate degree later (this varies by program, and is only possible up to a certain number of credits, so plan carefully).
- As an NM, you can take both undergraduate and graduate classes, but you can’t apply your graduate classes to a degree. If you choose to go the NM route, take note that while you don’t have the application fees associated with matriculated status, it still costs $60 to apply for NM status.
- As a GNM, you can earn up to 12 graduate-level credits that can be applied toward a degree. You have to contact the academic department directly to apply for GNM status. After that, you return to the Office of the Registrar to file your tuition exemption paperwork.
This form is how you prove that you’re qualified for the program. You’ll need to list your position title, department, and ID number, as well as get your department head’s signature.
The bottom half of the form is for people taking classes as a GNM student, grad students, and students pursuing a second B.A. Be aware that you might have to pay taxes on your tuition exempt courses, depending on whether or not the course/degree pertains to your job at the UW. Ask Student Fiscal Services if you have questions about potential tax impacts.
Once you fill out these two forms, turn them in together at the Office of the Registrar in 225 Schmitz Hall. They’re due two weeks before the start of the quarter, which means you’ll need to turn them in before you get into a class. That’s one risk of NM status: you might lose out on $60 if you don’t end up landing a spot in the class you want. The good news is that your student status lasts for two quarters (if you apply for student status in the fall, you’ll still have it in the following winter quarter; if you still haven’t taken a class after that, it expires).
While you’re exempt from up to six credits of tuition, you’re not exempt from student fees. When you enroll in a course and the quarter begins, you’ll be charged an additional $30 fee plus a technology fee that ranges from $4-5 per credit.
There’s a lot to consider, but luckily there’s help. “Come to us if you have questions,” said Maura Nakamichi, a program assistant in the Office of the Registrar. “Send us an email or call (206-543-8580). A lot of people are overwhelmed. It gets stressful. Our staff understands that there are a lot of questions, and that’s OK.”
Finding and scheduling classes
Once you establish student status and prove that you’re eligible for the program, you’ll need to find a class. Some people start with a subject in mind while others just open up the course catalog and see what’s being offered.
Here are some examples of how to search using the UW as an example. (All of the participating schools have course catalogs; remember to keep an eye out for fee-based programs that are not covered by tuition exemption.)
- Search the course catalog. This is a comprehensive list of every course currently offered at the UW. It can be overwhelming, but just dive in and have fun. It’s inspiring to look at the variety of subjects you could possibly learn about.
- Search the time schedule. This will let you filter the available classes to find what’s realistic for you. Looking for night classes? Select classes starting at 5:30 p.m. and beyond. Want to take a writing class? Filter it that way.
For an NM or GNM student, finding a class can be the most frustrating part of the process. That’s because you can’t sign up for classes until the third day of the quarter, and a lot of classes fill up quickly. However, you might be able to ensure your spot ahead of time even if you’re non-matriculated. Email the professor or the department to introduce yourself and see if there’s any way you can get an add code for the course. Tell them about your experience in the field and see if you can get the prerequisites waived.
As mentioned before, many courses aren’t covered by tuition exemption (examples include entry-level English and math, many nursing courses, all graduate-level independent study or research courses, and College of Education matriculated degree courses). On top of that, course descriptions often limit registration to people in that specific program or to matriculated students in general. Some of these guidelines are stricter than others. You won’t know until you try, so email the professor or the department and give it a shot.
Also, note that the restriction “No auditors” is not the same thing as “No non-matriculated students.” That said, you might be interested in auditing a class (which means you can attend the class without the stress of grades and tests). Tuition exemption can cover the cost of that. You’ll register as an NM and switch to auditor status after the quarter begins and you secure a spot.
Taking a class away from the UW
Let’s say you find a class you want to take after browsing the catalog at Seattle Central College. Unlike NM or GNM status at the UW, you will have to apply to community colleges to take a class there — even if you’re not seeking a degree.
After you apply and are accepted, contact Professional & Organizational Development (POD) and request a specific tuition exemption form for the school (or schools) you’re going to attend. Your email to POD should include your employee ID number, the name of the school you‘d like to attend, and your mailing address or campus box number. POD will send you a waiver about two weeks prior to the start of the quarter with the employment verification section filled out. You’ll fill out your personal information on the form and turn it in to the Registration Office or Enrollment Services at the school of your choice.
Lora Boone, a training specialist and registrar at POD, said tuition exemption is a “rapidly changing landscape.” POD tries to stay current with which non-UW schools and programs are participating, but any one may change their policy at any time.
“While there is the main tuition exemption program, policies around using tuition exemption vary greatly,” Lora said. “This makes it important to check in with the individual school or college where you’re interested in taking a class to find out what those policies are.”
For example, Everett Community College discounts a percentage of the cost of tuition rather than covering six credits of coursework. Highline College was at one point offering 11 credits instead of six, but now they waive tuition for a maximum of two classes per quarter. Some schools, like Bellevue College, allow you to use tuition exemption for online classes, while others don’t.
The logistics of tuition exemption can be discouraging, Lora admits, but she believes it’s been a successful program.
“People use the Tuition Exemption Program to take classes in everything from basket weaving to completing their Ph.D. studies,” she said. “I’ve often heard from people, ‘I wouldn’t have had a chance to pursue my education if it wasn’t for this program.’”
Finding a campus near you
With schools from Bellingham to Yakima, chances are there’s one near you (you’ll need to reach out to see if the school participates in tuition exemption).
Last year Heather Rieck, a business systems analyst in the Office of Research, wanted to learn more about real estate. There were no courses available to her on the UW campus, so she enrolled in one at North Seattle College. It was a three-hour night class that met once a week.
“It was a really good opportunity for me to take a class that I normally wouldn’t have spent money on had I been a student pursuing a degree,” she said. “It was extremely useful and practical for my life, but not necessarily something I could apply to continuing education.”
Don’t give up!
This article is just a brief look into the tuition exemption benefit. You’ll need to invest a decent amount of time to understand the program, find a school and a class, and successfully secure a spot for yourself. If you get discouraged, just remember that hundreds of people do it every quarter. You can be one of them. Even with the required fees, this perk can save you thousands of dollars.
“The details can seem a little overwhelming at first, but after a quarter or two, using tuition exemption just became part of my grad-school routine,” said Amy Schrader, a UW employee who used tuition exemption while pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. “To this day I’m still grateful when I think of how much this program saved me in student loans.”
Have you had a successful experience with tuition exemption program? Share it in the comments or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we may share your story at the bottom of this article.