5 Questions to Ask if Your Company is Considering a Student Loan HR Benefit

Recruiting and retaining top talent means offering a competitive benefits package, and increasingly that means offering a student loan benefit. However, in my conversations with EAP providers and others in the HR benefits industry, I find that few groups are familiar with the ins-and-outs of the various benefits and platforms available.

In the coming weeks, I will be writing more about what to look for when analyzing student loan benefits platforms. But before beginning the procurement process, companies should do some introspective work to figure out what they might be looking for.

Any company considering a student loan HR benefit should ask themselves these questions to get started.

1) What financial resources do you have to dedicate to a student loan benefit?

Student loan benefits range significantly in how expensive they might be. The first thing you need to decide is what type of money you have to invest in a student loan benefit.

If funds are limited, you may want to look at non-monetary options like refinancing partnerships (i.e. contracts with banks that will help your employees refinance to lower interest rates). However, as discussed below, refinancing partnerships come with drawbacks.

Alternately, if you already have a retirement plan in place, one way to lower the net expense is to institute a program that diverts funds from a retirement matching program to a student loan matching program. However, there are tax implications for both the company and the employee to doing so. I’ll be discussing these issues more in depth in future posts.

2) Are you willing to re-write your retirement plan or would you like to keep your student loan benefit separate from retirement savings?

Some companies are making 401(k) contributions based entirely on their employees student loan payments. This match can be an extremely attractive offer from a recruiting perspective. Additionally, this structure can help you keep your expenses low because employees can take advantage of the match either through student loan contributions or through 401(k) contributions, but not both. However, implementing a 401(k)-based student loan benefit requires re-writing your retirement plan and preparing for IRS oversight of the program.

3) Do your employees tend to need better interest rates or better knowledge of the federal programs?

Private refinancing is all the rage in the student loan benefit space. In recent years a swarm of refinancing options have popped up, offering borrowers competitive interest rates that are sometimes 4-5 percentage points lower than their federal student loans. Some companies have partnered with these refinancing entities to offer even more competitive rates to their employees.

To figure out whether you should emphasize private refinancing in your student loan benefit, ask yourself whether your employees tend to need better interest rates or better knowledge of the federal program.

If your company pays competitive salaries in high-demand fields such as technology or law, it is very likely that the majority of your employees will be hoping to pay off their loans as quickly as possible to lower the interest they pay over the life of the loan. If this is the case, a private refinancing partnership will help your employees to save money.

Of course, employees lose access to federal benefits when they privately refinance, so it is not always the best option, even for highly-compensated borrowers. Financial counseling and advice may be preferable to a refinancing option (or an addition to a refinancing option) if your employees would benefit from staying within the federal program.

4) Is stress relief and employee wellness a goal of your student loan benefit?

Twenty years ago, health and physical wellness outside of work were not a concern for HR departments. These days you would be hard-pressed to find a competitive HR department that isn’t thinking through stress, health, and wellness inside and out of the workplace.

Student loans can absolutely be a stressor for the modern-day workforce. 81% of employees with significant student loan debt report being stressed about their financials. 55% of those same employees report being distracted by their finances at work.

If these numbers are concerning to you and you see the student loan benefit as a wellness benefit, be sure to include financial counseling and advice as part of whatever platform you choose. While a monetary benefit can be a huge help, for borrowers buried under a mountain of debt, control and empowerment can be just as needed as a bit of extra cash.

5) Do you want to use your student loan benefit as an incentive for retention?

A student loan benefit can be an opportunity for both recruitment and retention. In an effort to incentivize long-term commitment to a company, some HR departments have offered vesting student loan benefits. For instance, a company might offer to make 20% of a student loan payment in an employee’s first year, 40% in the next year, and so on.

This structure can be a powerful retention tool. Alternately, it can disincentivize new hires who will not immediately reap financial benefits — or anger veteran employees who had to pay their student loans on their own.

Deciding internally how you want to balance the various goals of your student loan benefit will drive your procurement process and help shape your evaluation of the platforms and programs available.

What You Need to Know about the IRS’s Private Letter Ruling on Student Loan Payments and 401(k) Contributions

Top employers are increasingly offering a student loan HR benefit. According to SHRM, 4% of companies currently offer some form of student loan monetary benefit, and many more offer non-monetary programs — such as refinancing support or financial counseling — that may be stepping stones to a more robust program.

But until a few weeks ago, there was quite a bit of uncertainty about the interplay between a student loan repayment program and 401(k) contributions. The IRS’s recent private letter ruling has provided some much-needed guidance on this topic.

This article will summarize the current options for student loan HR benefits, give some background on the program from Abbott Laboratories that spurred the private letter ruling that the IRS issues in August, and summarize the main takeaways for any HR departments looking to explore a monetary student loan benefit.

Types of Student Loan Benefits

It’s important to identify exactly what type of student loan benefit program the private letter ruling addressed. There are many types of student loan benefits:

The IRS letter ruling only deals with the last category: benefit programs where an employer makes 401(k) contributions to match an employee’s student loan payments rather than their employees’ own 401(k) contributions. The letter ruling does not address a more traditional matching program where employees are given money directly to pay down their loans.

401(k) Contributions Based on Student Loan Payments

After noticing that their younger employees were not meeting the company’s offered 401(k) match, Abbott Laboratories modified their 401(k) plan to help their younger employees save for retirement. Under Abbott’s usual plan, an employee who contributed 2% of her salary to the company’s 401(k) plan received a 5% matching contribution from the company. Under Abbott’s new program, an equivalent 2% payment towards an employee’s student loans would be sufficient to trigger the company’s 5% contribution towards the 401(k) plan, even if the employee never contributed a dime directly into the 401(k) plan itself.

In other words, employees who were paying off their student loans would receive retirement savings directly from the company as though they had been saving for retirement themselves.

(Source: http://www.abbott.com/corpnewsroom/leadership/tackling-student-debt-for-our-employees.html)

IRS Private Letter Ruling

The IRS’s private letter ruling approved Abbott’s plan. Abbott had been concerned that the IRS would see the student loan contribution as an improper conditional requirement to getting the 5% match. But the IRS said that the program did not run afoul of the “contingent benefit” rules of section 401(k)(4)(A) or section 1.401(k)-1(e)(6). The IRS noted that the program was elective and employees had the option of either not participating or returning to the usual 401(k) contribution to qualify for the 5% match.

The IRS also said that a critical feature of the plan was that Abbott did not extend any student loans directly to employees. The letter ruling implies that any such student loan offering would raise questions about the legality of the plan.

The letter ruling is specific only to Abbott’s program and cannot be cited as precedent if your company wants to move in the direction of a student loan 401(k) benefit. However, the ERISA Industry Committee has requested that the IRS make their ruling broader, allowing more more programs to take advantage.

Starting Your Own Student Loan HR Benefit

The IRS’s private letter ruling may encourage trail-blazing employers to follow in Abbott Laboratories footsteps. However, doing so will require changing your company’s retirement plan and having some amount of risk tolerance for the quickly-changing tax and compliance issues surrounding 401(k)s and student loans.

The Abbott Laboratories private letter ruling is certainly encouraging and provides a useful model for any employers who wish to move in that direction. But it does not yet assure that any similar 401(k) plan will meet IRS approval.

What is a student loan consultation?

A common service I provide is a student loan consultation for borrowers.  So, what exactly does that mean?

The goal of the consultation is to (1) help you understand your student loans, (2) have you walk away with a plan for how to handle them based on your current job and expected career path, and (3) identify whether you have any on-going needs that requires further advice.

Every person I work with on a consultation gets an individualized spreadsheet that answers the specific questions they have about their student loans.  Common questions include: how can I minimize my current payment?  Do I need to consolidate or refinance my loans? If I pay extra every month, how much will I save? Am I on track for public service loan forgiveness?

The materials also include additional tools to help determine payments under income-driven repayment plans and cost savings from lowered interest rates.

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A sample spreadsheet.  Your spreadsheet will be customized to answer your questions and provide you with a clear, actionable plan

If you are interested, here are the steps involved in the process:

Step 1: Reach out and confirm eligibility.  The first step is to verify that you live in a state where Maurer Law LLC can provide advice.  Rebecca Maurer is licensed in Ohio and the District of Columbia.  If you live in another state, it is still possible to work with me, but I will have to verify that it can provide limited service in your state.  Either way, use the contact form to reach out.

Step 2: Exchange Paperwork.  You will need to send me your student loan information (preferably from National Student Loan Data System) and your goals / questions that want answered during the consultation.  You will also receive a limited services agreement outlining what is included in the consultation.

Step 3: Set up a time for a phone call.  You and Rebecca Maurer will pick a mutually convenient time to speak by phone.  Consultations usually take between 45 minutes to an hour.  Maurer Law needs at least 48 hours between sending paperwork and the consultation.

Step 4: Receive materials and have consultation. Be sure you are near a computer so you can go over the spreadsheet and other materials provided to you during the phone call.

Step 5: Payment.  A student loan consultation with Maurer Law LLC costs $250 for an individual or $350 for married clients who both have student loans.  If only one spouse has student loans, the cost is the same as for an individual.

A student loan consultation is a limited scope service.  If we identify on-going legal needs during the consultation, you can discuss on-going representation with Maurer Law at that time.  The consultation price does not include on-going representation beyond the one-hour phone call.

I do provide discounts for veterans, educators and others in public service.

Did the Department of Education Make Up a Legal Risk to Discourage Student Borrowers from Seeking Student Loan Discharges?

Early on in the Trump administration, Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education blocked an Obama-era regulation from going into effect that would overhaul how defrauded student loan borrowers could obtain debt relief.  A few weeks ago, the Department issued its own set of proposed rules that will make relief harder to obtain for hundreds of thousands of borrowers who were either misled by their schools or whose schools closed their doors.

These new changes were widely criticized by borrower advocates, who pointed out that many of the new rules were clearly aimed at protecting for-profit schools rather than average citizens.

However, one part in particular of the proposed rules leaped out at me.  The Department repeatedly claims that borrowers who obtained a closed school, false certification, or borrower defense discharge are at risk of having their official school transcripts withheld.

Withholding a transcript can have a devastating effect on already at-risk students.  A borrower may need that transcript to transfer to another school and finisher her degree, or prove to a potential employer that she’s completed the requisite coursework for a job.  Withholding a transcript can put a borrower’s life on hold and take away the promise that education offered in the first place.

The Department’s assertion that borrowers with discharged loans were at risk of having their transcript withheld came as news to me — and I research the issue of transcript withholding.  My paper on the topic will be presented at a higher education law conference this fall.

According to the Department’s notes,

The proposed regulations also would remind borrowers submitting affirmative or defensive claims that if the borrower receives a 100 percent discharge for the loan, the institution has the right to withhold an official transcript for the borrower, as has always been the case in instances in which the borrower has been awarded student loan discharge through false certification, closed school or defense to repayment discharge.

Sounds like this issue is pretty cut and dry to the Department: schools have always had the right to withhold an official transcript after a discharge.  However, the problem is that I cannot figure out where the Department is getting this assertion from.   And, despite no obvious evidence to back it up, this claim is being used by the Department to threaten scammed student borrowers, discouraging them from obtaining relief.

There are no rules or regulations about transcript withholding in the federal statutes or code of regulations.  Moreover, there is no mention of transcript withholding in the federal student loan master promissory notes, the contracts that govern the student loans that might later be subject to discharge.

Indeed, withholding a transcript has always been seen as a state law issue, one governed by the relationship between the student and the school, not the relationship between the student and the Department of Education.  Transcript withholding only occurs when a student defaults on a debt owed directly to the school such as unpaid library fees or a tuition bill that was never covered by student loans.

Does the Department of Education think that students will end up owing a debt directly to their school when they obtain a discharge on their student loans?  It’s true that the Department of Education is able to seek reimbursement for discharged student loans directly from the school.  For example, when ITT Tech went into bankruptcy, the Department of Education made a claim on the bankruptcy estate for more than $230 million to cover closed-school discharges and borrower defense discharges received by ITT Tech students.

In other words, does the Department of Education think that after paying back the Department of Education schools like ITT Tech have a corresponding claim against the individual borrowers—the ones whose student loans were discharged because of the school’s own closure?  If so, there are some obvious issues with this theory.

This supposed debt is unlikely to hold up in court.  Borrowers would have state unfair and deceptive acts and practices claims.  And equitable defenses would seem particularly appropriate.  When a student is relieved of her obligation to pay a student loan because of her school’s bad behavior, she cannot then be saddled in turn with a debt owed directly to that same school.

Alternately, what if the Department of Education is merely claiming that schools always have the ability to withhold official transcripts and they can choose to do so after a borrower obtains a discharge?  Again, this would be incorrect.

In 2009 the Seventh Circuit addressed a transcript withholding case after a student’s loans have been discharged in bankruptcy.  The Court held that “providing a transcript is an implicit part of the education contract” and that the student had a right to the transcript because, even though she hadn’t paid her school fees directly, the obligation to pay the debt had been discharged.  This case does depend on the state property law at issue, but it demonstrates that the Department of Education is misleading borrowers if this the grounds on which it claims that all schools have always had the right to withhold a transcript after a discharged student loan.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the Department of Education was referring to when it claimed that schools could withhold transcripts after a borrower obtained a student loan discharge.  I have never heard of such a case happening and cannot think of a theoretical basis for it to be true.  Nevertheless, they repeat the assertion 5 times in the notice of proposed rulemaking.  At this point, I have to conclude that the Department is misleading the public to support their agenda of discouraging discharge applications.