USPTO Retention Efforts – Tuition Reimbursement Returns but No Loan Repyament

By agreement signed with the Patent Office Professional Association on June 24, 2014, the United States Patent and Trademark Office is once again providing tuition reimbursement for employees who are enrolled in law school seeking a Juris Doctor degree. See 2014 Supplemental Agreement on the Non-duty Hours Legal Study Program. To qualify the employee must have at least 2 years of USPTO experience and sign a continuing service agreement.

The continuing service agreement requires an employee who received tuition reimbursement to provide continued service with the federal government for 30 days for each credit paid for by the USPTO. If the employee leaves the federal government prior to completing the required length of the continued service, the employee’s tuition reimbursement obligation will be on a pro rata basis (based on thirty-day increments).

This program is not guaranteed, and has been phased out in the past during times of budget crisis at the USPTO. The agreement between the USPTO and POPA explains that “[i]f requests exceed the allocated amount, or if funding is reduced below what is expected, reimbursements will be reduced based on the percentage that the allocated funding falls below actual costs. For example, if $2.7 million is available for a term and the costs total $3 million, each participant will receive 90°/o of their total requested funding.”

The USPTO also has a tuition reimbursement program for technical studies. Under the technical studies tuition reimbursement program the USPTO will pay tuition of up to $10,000/year for courses related to technologies that are examined at the USPTO. For this program the employee must have at least 1 year of USPTO experience and sign a continuing service agreement.

Paying for tuition is an excellent way to keep dedicated, talented employees while they continue to obtain training that will help them fulfill their duties at the USPTO. But a question of fairness jumps to mind. What about all the employees who paid for their own education during the time when the tuition reimbursement program was shelved? It seems a little unfair, and unwise, to pay for the tuition of new students but to do nothing about those employees who continue to work for the Office and who paid for their own courses and degrees. This is particularly true where other agencies do provide loan repayment to keep employees.


According to the website for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), “[[t]he Federal student loan repayment program permits agencies to repay Federally insured student loans as a recruitment or retention incentive for candidates or current employees of the agency.” This program described by OPM is not a loan forgiveness program, but rather one that allows agencies to pay up to a maximum of $10,000 per year with a lifetime cap of $60,000 for any one employee. 

According to a 2012 OPM report, the last year for which a report is available as of this writing, the Department of Commerce reported the Economic Development Administration, International Trade Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Office of the Secretary utilized student loan repayments to attract and retain employees in professional, administrative, and support occupations, paying the student loans of those who were attorneys, law clerks and technical specialists. The USPTO is not listed as have taken part in the loan repayment program. Interestingly, the Department of Defense, which did participate, is the only agency to have paid students loans for a patent attorney. (see Appendix 1).

In looking through the previous OPM reports on loan repayment, it becomes clear that the USPTO has not participated in this program dating back to 2002, which is the last year for which reports are available online. Further, the only agencies every to have repaid loans for a patent attorney are the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and the Justice Department.

The fact that the USPTO has not participated in loan repayment seems odd, particularly given the stretches where the tuition reimbursement program was suspended. The OPM reports laud the use of the loan repayment plan as a critically important tool to retain employees, and we all know that the USPTO could certainly benefit from retaining employees. I am hearing about retention problems, and if the USPTO is hiring 1,000 to 1,500 patent examiners a year how is it possible that the Office ended Fiscal 2013 with 7,837 patent examiners and started Fiscal 2014 with 7,931 patent examiners? That is a net gain of just 94 patent examiners during Fiscal 2013. Still on a hiring binge. the USPTO had at the end of July 2014 8,344 patent examiners, which is a net gain during FY 2014 of 413 patent examiners, which is well below the number of new examiners hired. See Patent Examiners from USPTO.

The 2012 OPM report on the loan repayment program reaches this conclusion:

One of the most important priorities for Federal agencies is attracting and retaining well-qualified, high-performing employees. Student loan repayments are a valuable human resources tool that enables agencies to recruit highly qualified candidates into Federal service and keep talented employees in the Federal workforce.

There is no doubt that the USPTO will benefit from the tuition reimbursement program. There is equally no doubt that the USPTO would benefit from participating in the loan repayment program.



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Join the Discussion

3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for M]
    August 15, 2014 11:50 am

    Hi Thank you for this article- I think it is an important point that there were many employees in the middle of law school when the tuition reimbursement was suspended. These employees faced two options- quit school (after putting in a significant time investment) or take on student loans. I know of only one person who quit. I continued with my education, but now I am stuck with an additional 1k of loan debt per month. I am disappointed that management would start offering tuition reimbursement to new students while not considering loan repayment for the employees who got caught in the middle of the budget crisis. It is also worth noting that at the time I was hired, tuition reimbursement was used as a recruiting tool, and no one mentioned how easily the program could be cut until my first day at the Office.

  • [Avatar for Paul Cole]
    Paul Cole
    August 14, 2014 04:49 pm

    Patent examination requires a combination of legal and technical skills. A legal education is likely to improve examiner effectiveness, and support for such education is to be applauded. It will promote a more thoughtful and structured approach to the task in hand.

  • [Avatar for Old Examiner]
    Old Examiner
    August 14, 2014 04:27 pm

    “What about all the employees who paid for their own education during the time when the tuition reimbursement program was shelved?”

    This is simply the way it has always been at the PTO. I was not reimbursed for my law school attendance in the ’70s, but reimbursement was again implemented after I graduated.