Companies structure employee benefits to entice you to join their organization and stay there. Because the costs of employee acquisition and training are so high, companies offer significant benefits and incentives to retain employees.

Educational benefits are one of the most important compensation add-ons you should research when considering any potential employer. Even if you just earned a degree and are feeling burned out on studying, the memories of that pain will fade within a few years and you might decide to pursue an advanced degree. And if you've taken just a handful of college courses but have no diploma to show for it, you know you'll eventually hit that educational glass ceiling and need to finish that degree.

Finishing a degree or earning an advanced degree can give you real advantages if layoffs hit and you find yourself looking for a job. In many situations, a 4-year degree is a basic criterion. Without it, your resume might end up in the trash before a prospective employer even evaluates your certifications and experience.

In some cases, companies aren't willing to pay for a $10,000 MCSE or Cisco Systems certification-training package but will pay for a $25,000 masters-degree program. For those of us who see value in training and certification, these numbers might not add up, but you must take advantage of what an employer thinks has value and could ultimately advance your career.

Increasingly, employers have realized the value of offering educational assistance. Educational programs often last 2 to 4 years, and employers who offer assistance are virtually guaranteed employee retention during that time. Reimbursements and incentives can take several forms, including time off for study and payment for tuition, classes, and books. Depending on the degree program you choose, such benefits might exceed $20,000 in value. Some employers offer further incentives of stock or stock options for those who complete the program.

Some degree programs require a commitment of 4 to 5 hours per night, 2 nights per week. If you add 1 to 3 hours of homework for each in-class hour, you can see that eating and sleeping become optional activities. I attended one of these degree-completion programs for 16 months and at the end of that time, all of us in the program were completely exhausted. I was fortunate because I had a reduced daytime workload and an employer that let me study, but if I'd been working full time, the program would've been very difficult. You should ask your employer and the school what would happen if you had to drop a class or reduce the number of classes and extend the program completion. You could be liable for class costs if you drop a class after the no-charge withdrawal date. Be certain that you have plenty of extra time to complete the program if illness, pregnancy, or other expected or unexpected events occur.

College-entrance requirements can vary greatly and might include assessment tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and essays. Employers and schools might have a minimum grade standard that you must maintain to remain in good standing. Usually, the more prestigious the school, the higher the grade standard. One major California-based management school has a B grade standard.

Accepting employee educational reimbursements can introduce tax implications. These reimbursements might count as taxable income if you're seeking a degree that can be considered as retraining. Check with a tax advisor to be sure the program falls within nontaxable guidelines or you might face an unexpected tax liability on $20,000 in educational reimbursement "income."

If your employer offers educational benefits, follow the company's guidelines carefully but take full advantage of the offerings. If you work for a company that doesn't offer such benefits, keep your eyes open for an opportunity that does.