Will your employer help pay for your bachelor’s degree?

May 23, 2012, 4:21 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I am an accountant at a small company that was recently acquired by a much larger firm, and it’s becoming clear to me that I’ll have a hard time advancing in the new organization unless I go back to school for a bachelor’s degree. I currently have a two-year degree and a couple of professional designations, plus 11 years of work experience, but everyone above me here has a four-year degree, or even a graduate degree.

I’d have to study at night and on weekends, so I’m considering enrolling in a well-known national online university. But the tuition is fairly steep and I’m wondering if I can persuade my employer to foot at least part of the bill. I’ve heard that our new parent company used to offer tuition reimbursement as a standard benefit but cut it out, as a cost-saving measure, a few years ago. Any pointers on how to sell them on the idea of bringing it back? — Ready to Hit the Books

Dear R.H.B.: You are doubtless not the only one wondering. Consider: Just 26% of chief financial officers say their companies reimburse employees for the training required to maintain their professional certifications, according to a new survey by staffing firm Robert Half Finance & Accounting. That’s a big drop from the 46% who paid for continuing education in 2006.

College tuition reimbursement has declined too, and not just in finance — yet another casualty of tough economic conditions. “Companies are still struggling to recover from the downturn, and they’re keeping a sharp eye on costs,” notes Brett Good, a Robert Half senior district president in Irvine, Calif.

MORE: Harvard shakes up its MBA admissions

Another difficulty, he says, is that companies are well aware that education makes employees more marketable: “We’re starting to see hiring pick up a little, so people are changing jobs more readily. Employers don’t want to pay tuition for someone who’s going to quit.”

That said, you may still be able to persuade your employer to help you go back to school. As a general rule, Good says, the best time to negotiate for tuition reimbursement is before you take a new job. “When you’re job hunting, if this is something that’s important to you, ask about it in interviews,” he suggests.

In your case, since you’re already working there, “you need to meet with your boss and make a business case for why it’s in the company’s best interest to cover your tuition. What will be the return on their investment?” It helps that your employer used to offer tuition reimbursement in the past, Good points out: “They must have had solid reasons for doing this before, so you could frame your request as a matter of returning to a practice that, although it was temporarily suspended, really benefits the organization.”

To counter concerns that you’ll get your sheepskin and leave, he adds, “you may need to have some skin in the game. One fairly common approach is to offer to sign an agreement that you will stay with the company for a given number of years after earning the degree — or that, if you do leave, you will repay a specified amount of the tuition on a pro rata basis.”

MORE: Opening Day: Fortune launches ‘Fantasy League’

If your employer still isn’t willing to help out with your tuition, you may be able to get federal or state student loans to cover all or part of the cost, but be careful which college you choose. Since you mention a “well-known national online university,” I’d be remiss not to mention that for-profit colleges, particularly the online-only variety, have been at the center of a storm of controversy since 2010.

That’s when Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate committee overseeing education, came out with a report that said average tuition at for-profit colleges is $14,000, or twice the $7,000 annual average at state universities, and that for-profit schools spend more of their revenues on non-teaching-related expenses (like advertising) and have higher dropout rates than traditional not-for-profit colleges.

Researchers found that for-profit schools’ hefty 37% profit margins were financed in large part by taxpayers. Although these schools’ enrollment is only about 10% of the U.S. total, the Harkin report said, they get almost a quarter of total federal student aid — about $24 billion in the 2008-2009 academic year.

Other studies, by the Government Accountability Office and the National Center for Education Statistics, followed the Harkin report and painted a picture of for-profit colleges as offering less education (far lower graduation rates, for instance) at a much higher price than comparable curricula — including online degree programs — from non-profit schools.

As you’d expect, the for-profit university industry disputes all of these accusations, countering the government’s figures with much different data that may or may not more accurately reflect reality. But the point remains that, when shopping for a college as for any other major purchase, do your homework. Caveat emptor.