The Role 529 Plans and Tax-Free Employer Student Loan Assistance Can Play in Improving Employee Well-being

The Role 529 Plans and Tax-Free Employer Student Loan Assistance Can Play in Improving Employee Well-being

Patricia Roberts

Employers now have an expanded opportunity to support employees with one of their most pressing concerns – repayment of student loan debt. With approximately 44 million former students in the U.S. struggling to repay over $1.6 trillion in outstanding educational debt, there have been many reasons for employers to consider offering student loan benefits – and thanks to recent legislative changes, there’s one more.

With the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 signed into law at the end of 2020, the ability for employers to offer tax-free student loan repayment for employees through Educational Assistance Programs has been extended for five years – until January 1, 2026. It was a provision in the CARES Act in March 2020 that initially expanded the definition of “eligible education expenses” in Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code to go beyond employees’ tuition, books and fees to cover student loan repayment assistance as well. Through January 1, 2026, up to a total of $5,250 annually in eligible education expenses, including student loans, can be paid by employers and excluded from an employees’ income through Section 127 Educational Assistance Programs. 

The Why:

In addition to being able to offer student loan payments free of income and payroll tax and as a tax-deductible business expense, here are three reasons for employers to consider offering student loan repayment assistance to employees: 

1. Recruitment – With only 8% of employers currently student loan repayment benefits, those employers who do offer student loan assistance will stand out in the recruiting process. 

2. Retention – With 30% of working class Americans changing jobs every twelve months, offering a benefit like student loan repayment can foster loyalty and minimize turnover. Beyond this, satisfied employees can be a valuable source of high quality employee referrals who tend to stay longer at companies

3. Diversity and Inclusion – With greater student loan stress on women and Blacks, offering student loan assistance can help with racial and gender equity. 

The How:

Here are three ways employers of all sizes can help employees who are struggling to prepare for or repay the cost of higher education: 

1. Amend an existing 127 Educational Assistance Program to include student loan repayment of up to $5,250 a year or establish a program if one is not already in place. 

2. Offer payroll deduction to 529 plans along with an employer contribution or match to help employees save for higher education and avoid or minimize student loan debt.

3. Incorporate student loan and/or 529 contributions into a rewards and recognition program and/or provide a 529 plan contribution as a gift when employees welcome a new child into their family. 

​With the recent expansion of tax-free student loan benefits, with 75% of employees ranking student loan and 529 college savings support amongst the top three desired employer benefits overall (23% of which rank these as second only to health benefits), and with “529 College Savings Day” (May 29) approaching, there’s no better time for employers to explore one or more options to help employees with the cost of higher education. These benefits are a win/win for employers and for employees.

About the Author:

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Patricia Roberts is the Chief Operating Officer of Gift of College, Inc. and author of Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans. 
She has helped tens of thousands of families avoid millions of dollars in student loan debt through her leadership over the past 22 years in nearly every aspect of the 529 college savings arena and she has helped employers of all sizes implement meaningful solutions to support employees with saving for or repaying the cost of higher education.

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