Student loan assistance, which started as a niche offering by a handful of companies, was already finding its way into the mainstream menu of workplace benefits before COVID-19 hit.
The pandemic may only accelerate the trend.
Prior to the crisis, around 1 in 10 employers offered a student loan benefit, according to a 2019 survey by The Society for Human Resource Management. The share of companies that would do so could rise to 1 in 3, the organization found, if the government allowed them to avoid taxes on the payments.
In the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act passed in March, it did just that. Although the tax-incentive was set to expire at the end of 2020, the latest relief package extends the provision for another five years. And experts say it's likely to become permanent.
Many workers could use the assistance.
Each year, 70% of college graduates start off their lives in the red, and the average balance has climbed to $30,000, from $10,000 in the early 1990s. The typical monthly student loan payment is $400.
Here are the details of the benefit and what the new rules mean.
How much can my boss pay toward my student loans?
Under the new provision, employers may make tax-free contributions of up to $5,250 a year to their employees' education debt. The payments are not included in the employees' taxable income.
How long will the benefit last?
Until at least Dec. 31, 2025.
How does the benefit work?
Companies that offer student loan assistance pay your lender directly. The typical benefit is around $100 a month, said higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz.
What if I'm taking advantage of the payment pause during the pandemic?
The U.S. Department of Education allowed borrowers to not make payments on their federal student loans through the end of 2020, without interest accruing on their debt. Advocates hope President-elect Joe Biden will extend the reprieve beyond April.
In the meantime, your employer can still make payments on your student loans. Since interest is suspended, the money will just go directly to your debt's principal.
Are companies really adding benefits during the pandemic?
Amid the crisis, employers have been furloughing and laying off workers, and suspending their contributions to current employees' 401(k) plans. That may not sound like a good environment for them to be keeping — led alone adding — a new benefit like student loan assistance.
But Kantrowitz said he hasn't heard of any companies getting rid of the program of late.
"It's a relatively inexpensive benefit, and it's a good retention and recruiting tool for employers," he said.
My boss doesn't offer student loan assistance. How should I raise the subject?
Consider asking someone in your company's human resources department to consider adding the benefit, Kantrowitz said. Point out that the latest stimulus package includes a tax incentive for them to do so.
"It's a way for the employer to show that they care about their employees' concerns," he said.