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Many employers currently offer tuition reimbursement as a component of their employee benefit programs, but this benefit is of limited use for employees who have already completed their education and who do not expect to take further coursework that would be eligible for reimbursement. At the same time, large numbers of prospective employees are burdened with significant student loan debt obligations. This student loan debt can limit the degree to which employees participate in taxdeferred benefit options such as health savings accounts (“HSAs”), dependent care assistance programs (“DCAPs”), and retirement savings programs such as 401(k) accounts.
Currently, an employer cannot make tax-advantaged contributions toward an employee’s student loan debt or offer employees the option to elect a portion of their income to be directed toward student loan debt repayment on a tax-advantaged basis. But in a 2018 IRS private letter ruling, the IRS found that a 401(k) contribution program did not violate the 401(k) “contingent benefit” rule. Under the program, the employer made regular matching 401(k) contributions equal to 5% of the employee’s payroll period compensation if the employee contributed at least 2%. The employer’s proposed amendment to the program, which the IRS addressed in its ruling, allowed employees with student loan debt to voluntarily opt out of the regular matching contributions and earn a similar employer contribution provided that the employee made student loan repayments of at least 2% of their payroll period compensation. This benefit allowed the employer to reward the employee for making student loan payments by increasing the employer’s contribution to the employee’s 401(k).
This letter ruling is not precedential and should not be solely relied upon to adopt a student loan repayment benefit. There are unresolved nondiscrimination, administration, and verification issues that will accompany any student loan repayment plan. Further, pending legislation may dramatically alter the scope of student loan repayment benefits and tax advantages to employers and employees related to these programs. Employers should consult with their legal, accounting, and benefits advisors to consider whether there is a role for a student loan repayment benefit in their broader benefit package and the possible costs and benefits associated with this in-demand benefit option.
This article gives a basic overview of recent regulation as in effect on the date of the article. Please be aware that the determination of the requirements and the application of these rules to each employer may differ due to a number of variables. Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.