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The Emerging Benefit Trend of Student Loan Assistance

Employers are by now familiar with the scary statistics on mounting student loan indebtedness, including that approximately 71% of 2015 college seniors graduated with a student loan, and almost 80% of millennials believe that student loan debt will make it harder for them to meet their financial goals.  Per Mark Kantrowitz of Cappex.com, the average student loan balance increased by almost 50% between 2005 and 2015, and now hovers around $35,000 per graduate.

Large student loan debt impacts current employees and prospective new hires in many ways: it may cause rejection of a desired position or promotion due to income needs, it may postpone retirement plan participation due to cash flow needs, and it may delay or even rule out home ownership or starting families, leading to a less stable and community-involved workforce.

Employers want to be able to help mitigate some of the downside of high student loan debt among their employees, but their efforts are hindered by the fact that employer loan payments on behalf of an employee are currently taxable to the employee.

Several pieces of new legislation proposed for the 2017-2018 Congressional term encourage or facilitate employer assistance with student loan repayments through tax incentives. A survey of some of these measures follows:

The Higher Education Loan Payments (HELP) for Students and Parents Act (H.R. 1656)

  • This measure would permit employers to make up to $5,250 per year in tax-free student loan repayments on behalf of employees, and provide an employer tax credit based on 50% of contributions made within that dollar limit.
  • It would also permit employers to make up to $5,250 per year in the form of “qualified dependent 529 contributions” direct to employees’ tax-exempt tuition savings accounts set up on behalf of their children (up to age 19; students up to age 24), and would provide a corresponding 50% employer tax credit.
  • If passed it would thereby double the current $5,250 limit on employer education assistance under Internal Revenue Code (“Code) § 127.
  • Significant for smaller employers, the HELP for Students and Parents Act would treat sole proprietors and partners as employees for purposes of the excludible contributions.

The Student Loan Repayment Act (H.R. 615)

  • This bill would offer employers a 3-year business tax credit equal to 50% of startup costs for a student loan program (up to $500 per participating employee) under which the employer matches employees’ student loan repayments, up to $2,000 per year.
  • The startup costs are program creation costs, not amounts used for employer matching contributions.
  • The bill would also allow employers who hire “qualified student loan repayers” to claim the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which encourages hiring of select populations such as veterans and recipients of certain types of public assistance. A “qualified student loan repayer” must have at least an associate’s degree, and outstanding education loans of at least $10,000.

The Student Loan Repayment Assistance Act (H.R. 108)

  • This bill would amend the Code to allow businesses a tax credit for employer-paid student loan repayments made direct to the lender, equal to 10% of the amounts that the employer pays on behalf of any employee, not to exceed $500 per employee per month.
  • The credit would be refundable for small businesses and non-profits who cannot use the credit against taxes.
  • The bill would require a written plan document, notice to employees, annual reporting to IRS and must be made “widely available” to employees (not discriminate in favor of “highly compensated employees”).

The Retirement Improvement and Savings Enhancement (RISE) Act of 2016

  • This measure took the form of a discussion draft in the 2014-2016 Congress but likely will be re-introduced in the current 115th Congress.
  • It would permit employers to make matching contributions to an employee’s 401(k) or SIMPLE IRA account based on his or her student loan repayments, essentially treating employee student loan repayment as equivalent of a 401(k) salary deferral.
  • Its retirement provisions would also curtail currently permissible IRA strategies including “mega Roth IRAs” and stretch IRAs, and would permit IRA contributions after reaching age 70 1/2.

As legislative efforts progress, vendors are already stepping in to the breach. Tuition.io provides a software interface that permits employer money to go direct to repay student loans, without going through employee pay.  The average employer contribution per paycheck is $50 – $200.   Other vendors include Student Loan Genius, PeopleJoy, Peanut Butter, and Gradifi.

One compliance question that these programs raise is whether student loan repayment programs would comprise ERISA plans, subject to trust and reporting requirements, or simply be viewed as “payroll practices” exempt from Title I of ERISA.  They do not provide retirement income or defer compensation to retirement age, thus would not likely be an ERISA pension plan, and do not provide benefits within the definition of ERISA “health and welfare” plans, so probably would not fall within ERISA’s scope.  This should help encourage formation of these programs by employers, as ERISA compliance burdens can be complicated and costly. Employers may still need to meet certain requirements in order to ensure tax-qualified status, however, as in the case of the Student Loan Repayment Assistance Act, which imposes documentation, notice and reporting duties.

Employers that want to address their employees’ student loan debt through workplace financial assistance can take the following steps to help select the program or policy that best suits their needs:

  • Talk to your recruiters and use other methods to estimate the student loan burden faced by your staff and new hire candidates.
  • Carefully evaluate various student loan aid vendors and identify those with the best fit for your organization.
  • Invest time in plan design and scheduling a roll out.
  • Remember that communication and ease of use are both key success factors.
  • Continue to monitor legislation for new assistance options.

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