Lending a Hand to Employees Coping with Student Debt

Student loan debt in America continues to rise, increasing the financial burden on Americans. The statistics are alarming. As of December 31, 2016, student loan debt in America reached $1.4 trillion, held by over 40 million graduates. And as many of these graduates attempt to pay off student debt, they are deferring other financial priorities, like saving for retirement or purchasing a home.  

Sponsored Student Loan Repayment

One new perk that is attracting significant attention is the employer-sponsored student loan repayment benefit offered by companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Fidelity, Staples, and Natixis. Much like tuition reimbursement programs, instead of reimbursing the employee for the cost of furthering their education, this benefit allows the employer to directly pay down an employee’s student debt.

Employer 401(k) Matching Contributions for Student Loan Repayments

In September 2016, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Finance, circulated draft legislation (the Retirement Improvements and Savings Enhancements Act of 2016) that would allow employers to make tax-deferred matching contributions to the 401(k) plans of employees who are making student loan payments but are unable to afford 401(k) contributions. Similar to the structure of a 401(k) plan, the employee chooses the amount they will pay toward their student loan and the employer determines how much they are willing to contribute.  The draft solves most of the technical impediments that exist under current law for this concept. The draft hasn’t yet been introduced as formal legislation, but may be introduced during the 2017-2018 session of Congress.

Other legislative proposals would seek to exclude direct employer payments to student loans from an employee’s taxable income, or provide tax credits related to those employer payments. The general direction of these proposals is clear – provide special tax treatment for employer payments towards student loans.

Next Steps for Employers

Whether your company is currently offering a student loan benefit to your employees, you can be sure that many of your employees are thinking about this topic daily. Apart from monetary assistance, implementing a financial wellness program can help your employees learn how to effectively manage their current financials while making strategic choices to ensure their future. It’s not as simple as “if you build it, they will come” – information doesn’t always lead to action. Learn more about how to build effective financial wellness programs and the benefits to employees – and employer – when offered.

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