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Staff scrambling after Children’s Hospital Colorado ends full tuition benefit for employees

Year-end taxes also caught some workers at the Aurora hospital by surprise

Children's Hospital Colorado on the Anschutz ...
Children’s Hospital Colorado on the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus located at 13123 E. 16th Ave. in Aurora, on June 9, 2021. (Photo by Eric Lutzens/The Denver Post)
DENVER, CO - MARCH 7:  Meg Wingerter - Staff portraits at the Denver Post studio.  (Photo by Eric Lutzens/The Denver Post)

Children’s Hospital Colorado will no longer pay employees’ full tuition for certain health care degrees, leaving some staffers scrambling to figure out their next move.

A registered nurse at the hospital who is pursuing a master’s degree in a behavioral health field said she can’t apply for financial aid before the next semester starts in January. While Children’s will still pay employees up to $5,250 a year for tuition, that won’t cover the full cost of her program, which the hospital previously had paid in full, she said.

“They gave us about a one-month notice,” said the nurse, who spoke to The Denver Post on the condition of anonymity over fears she could lose her job. “A lot of us don’t have five, six grand saved to pay for our next term.”

Children’s contracted with a third party to fully pay for some degree programs and partially cover others. The programs the hospital chose weren’t necessarily the cheapest ones, the nurse said, and she doesn’t think she can transfer to a less-expensive school two years into her degree.

Leila Roche, a spokeswoman for Children’s, said when the Aurora hospital conducted its annual benefits assessment, it found that far more people than anticipated had used the full-tuition option. She said the hospital has paid about $11 million for tuition since May 2022.

“This was a very difficult decision and one we did not make without serious consideration of various options,” she said. “Children’s Colorado remains dedicated to making a significant annual investment in this benefit and the education of more than 1,000 team members.”

The nurse said the financial blow of having to pay tuition next year was stacked on top of a sudden notice that she would have to pay taxes on this year’s tuition, which wasn’t clear when she signed up for the program. Children’s deducted it from her checks in December, rather than spreading it out over the full year, which would have been easier to manage, she said.

“I wasn’t able to pay rent this month, so I’m going into more credit card debt for that,” she said.

The Internal Revenue Service requires employees who receive more than $5,250 in tuition reimbursement to pay taxes on the amount above that threshold. In Colorado, the rate comes out to about 34% after including federal, state, Social Security and Medicare taxes.

A behavioral health specialist who is pursuing a degree in counseling said he managed to stay afloat on smaller checks after taxes, but this month wiped out his emergency savings. He plans to take a semester off to assess his finances and look at transferring to a different school, because he can’t afford to cover the tuition balance at Regis University.

People working in behavioral health already feel unappreciated and aren’t paid well, said the specialist, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was worried about retaliation. Full tuition coverage gave him a chance to build a career in the field without adding to his existing student loan debt, he said.

“I felt like, for the first time, my future was laid out in front of me and goals were achievable,” he said. “My life has got completely turned upside down in a matter of days.”

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