President Joe Biden's plan to offer up to $20,000 incould wipe out the balances of almost a third of the 45 million Americans with federal student loans. Many more borrowers, though, will still head into 2023 under a cloud of debt.
Help could come from an unexpected source: Their bosses. A growing number of companies are helping employees pay off their student loans.
"It's becoming more common -- not just among Fortune 500 corporations, but midsize and smaller companies too," Kristen Carlisle is general manager at Betterment at Work, which offers student loan management resources, told CNET. "Employees are asking for it. Bottom-up demand is shaping the narrative."
Betterment is one of a handful of companies that offer student loan benefit solutions, alongside SoFi at Work, Vault, Gradifi and Tuition.io. According to Betterment's research, 57% of employees believe their bosses should help them pay off student debt. And 85% said they'd leave their current job for a company that offered more financial support for student loans.
"Employees have more leverage than ever, so employers are rushing to stay competitive," Carlisle said. "New entries in the job market have new needs and the market needs to respond to that."
There's a range of options for companies looking to provide help with student loans, from financial counseling and debt consolidation to matching payments akin to tuition reimbursement.
Which companies provide student loan repayment benefits?
The number of companies offering student loan benefits is small but growing, according to Carlisle. Benefits provider Goodly has a searchable database of employers that offer student loan assistance, as does remote-job listing site Flexjobs.
Below is a sample of some well-known employers and the loan benefits they offer.
15 companies that offer student loan repayment benefits
|Aetna||The health care company will match full- and part-time employees' student loan payments up to $2,000 annually, with a lifetime maximum of $10,000.|
|Carvana||Working with Gradifi, Carvana contributes up to $1,000 annually to pay down the student loans of full-time employees.|
|Estée Lauder||Since 2018, employees at Estée Lauder -- which owns Clinique, MAC Cosmetics and Origins -- have been eligible for a monthly $100 contribution to their student loan payments, with a $10,000 cap.|
|Fidelity Investments||Employees working at least 30 hours per week can get $180 monthly contributions toward their student loans, with a lifetime cap of $15,000. Those working between 20 and 29 hours can receive up to $89 per month, with a $7,500 cap.|
|First Republic||First Republic works with Gradifi to offer $100 monthly student loan payments that increase the longer the the benefit is used, up to $200 per month. There's no lifetime cap -- you can stay in the program until your loan is fully paid.|
|The search giant will match staffers' student loan payments, up to $2,500 per year.|
|Hulu||Employees can receive $100 a month toward their student loans, with a $6,000 cap.|
|Live Nation||After six months on the job, full-time employees are eligible for $100 of student loan repayment assistance for up to five years or $6,000.|
|New York Life||New York Life partnered with Vault to contribute $170 a month toward employees' student loans for up to five years, for a total of up to $10,200 in repayment assistance.|
|Peloton||Peloton will contribute $100 a month through Gradifi toward employees' student loan payments.|
|Penguin Random House||Working with Gradifi, the book publisher offers full-time employees who have been with the company for one year up to $1,200 annually in student loan repayment benefits, with a cap at $9,000.|
|PricewaterhouseCoopers||PwC associates can receive up to $1,200 a year toward their student loans for up to six years, or until they're promoted to a managerial role.|
|SoFi||Since 2016, SoFi employees have been able to get $200 per month applied toward their student loans, with no annual or lifetime cap.|
|Staples||The office-supply company is working with Tuition.io to offer $100 a month of student loan repayments to "top performers" nominated by their managers, with a cap of $3,600. The benefit is also available to new hires on Staples' business-to-business sales team.|
|Western Union||Since 2017, eligible employees at Western Union can receive $50 monthly contributions toward the principal balance of their student loans. Contributions are sent via Gradifi directly to the employee's loan provider.|
Some companies have no strings attached for the loan repayment benefit, while others might require a certain amount of time at the job or cap assistance at a certain dollar amount. Still, 86% of workers said they'd stay at a company for five years if it meant being able to take advantage of a student loan repayment program.
And employees aren't shying away from frank conversations with their bosses about their student loan burden, Carlisle said.
"Providing information to your employer and benefits provider can only help bring you to financial freedom," Carlisle said. "Go to your People team and ask them if they're thinking about it. Explain why it could help the entire company and maybe come to the table with some provider names."
How widespread is student loan assistance as a job benefit?
Craig Copeland, director of wealth benefits research for the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute, said there was major interest in student loan benefits before the pandemic.
"COVID kind of paused everything, with companies focused on emergency situations and health care," Copeland told CNET. "Now, the focus is coming back around."
Uptake is still slow, and legislation is only now coming that makes it easier for companies to provide student loan repayment assistance, he said.
From 2014 to 2016, only 4% of companies offered such benefits, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, a figure that doubled to 8% in 2019.
Tuition reimbursement remains a much more common perk, offered by 71% of employers according to data from U.S. News & World Report. In large part that's because, until recently, student loan assistance wasn't eligible for a tax break the way tuition reimbursement is.
Legislative changes benefiting student loan assistance benefits
The 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act finally allowed employers to make untaxed contributions of up to $5,250 each year toward employees' student loans -- a benefit that's since been extended through 2025.
Only 8% of employers offered it in 2020, though.
The 2019 Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act allows workers to set up tax-advantaged 529 accounts of up to $10,000 a year for student loan repayments. But, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, only one in 10 employers offer these accounts -- and only one in 100 contributed in 2020.
Now before Congress, the SECURE Act 2.0 would finally change financial regulations to allow employers to make tax-exempt 401(k) contributions that directly match their workers' student loan payments.
SECURE Act 2.0's passage would allow people whose student debt is keeping them from putting money away for retirement to begin saving, said Laurel Taylor, CEO of Candidly, which offers student-debt solutions.
"College graduates with student debt, on average, have half the 401(k) balance of their debt-unburdened colleagues because they are forced to delay saving," Taylor told SHRM. "This would rectify that inequality."
SHRM expects "a ramping up" of employers offering this benefit, according to its 2020 employee benefits report. In a job market that favors workers, It can be a way for employers to stand out.
"Education benefits are ripe for expansion, as employers could see real advantages in talent acquisition and retention by being early adopters of these relatively rare but popular offerings," the report read.
Nearly half (48%) of employers either offered student loan assistance or planned within the next two years, according to an October 2021 survey of 250 firms by EBRI.
Of course, not all workers have student loans, and financial education benefits may take various forms.
"It could be a college savings accounts for employees who are parents," Copeland said.
What to keep in mind about student loan assistance benefits
Right now, student debt consolidation plans are the most common benefit, mainly because they don't require employers to make continuous contributions.
"You'll probably get a better interest rate," Copeland said, referring to debt consolidation. "The downside is that your loan will be privatized," making it ineligible for any future payment pauses or debt forgiveness by the federal government.
"You just have to understand what you're getting into," Copeland added.