Large numbers of companies are now involved in helping employes pay for education -- either for themselves or for their children. Some of these education benefits are threatened, but others are coming on strong.
There are two stories here: One for the mass, one for the class.
For the mass, the issue is company-paid education and training courses. Congress let the tax exclusion for certain tuition payments die last January, then decided to extend it through 1985. What's threatened are the courses you take to qualify yourself for a better job. If you have such a course in mind, you might want to sign up for it this year, lest Congress let the benefit lapse again.
Right now, the rules are these:
Your company can finance almost any type of education you want, even if it's not related to your job. All it needs is a written plan, applied even-handedly to all groups of employes.
You can be reimbursed, tax free, for tuition, books, supplies and fees (although not for food, transportation and lodging). A newly imposed ceiling of $5,000 a year applies to non-job-related courses, according to Peter Elinsky of the accounting firm, Peat Marwick. (There is some argument in the accounting profession as to whether that ceiling might also apply to courses that are job-related -- a controversy that awaits resolution by the IRS. Certain graduate-student research and teaching assistants can escape the $5,000 cap.)
The only exclusions are courses on sports, games and hobbies, unless they involve the company's business. Benefits are limited to the employes themselves, and aren't for the benefit of their children.
Most large and medium-size companies offer these perks to their employes. A new survey by Hewitt Associates finds that, among 619 companies, 99 percent pay for courses related to an employe's current job (such as a word-processing course for a secretary), while 89 percent also pay, or help pay, for certain non-job-related courses (such as an accounting course taken by a secretary who wants to advance). It's the tax break for the non-job-related courses that may be allowed to die at the end of the year.
For the top echelon of executives, the issue isn't their own education -- it's their children's. Joe Walsh of Coopers & Lybrand in Washington says companies are always looking for ways to use tax-free company money to finance college educations for the children of top execs.
A company can start an Educational Benefit Trust -- setting money aside for an employe's child and using those funds to pay the education bills. But the 1984 tax law made a drastic change in these trusts. The company can no longer take a tax deduction when money is paid in; it gets the deduction only when money is taken out and paid to the school or employe -- at which point, the employe has to report it as taxable income. So it's not a tax dodge any more.
From the company's point of view, the trust itself has lost much of its usefulness, because it no longer provides a current tax deduction. "Employers don't like to part with money they could use in their business," Elinsky told my associate, Virginia Wilson.
Instead of using a formal trust, companies are now more apt to promise certain top executives that their children's education will be taken care of when the time comes. At that point, the company pays (and deducts the payment), while the employe picks up the same amount as taxable income. There might even be an extra payment to help the executive cover the tax.
Thanks to this largesse, the lucky exec doesn't have to think about saving or borrowing money for college payments. His personal socialist state -- the corporation -- is taking care of his responsibilities for him.
In the academic world, many colleges and universities offer free tuition, or cash education grants, to the children of faculty members and administrative personnel, but not to lower-level employes. In the past, this perk has been income-tax free.
But Congress doesn't think it's fair to give tax breaks for education grants to a favored elite. So it wrote a new rule last year. The college employe whose child gets this kind of undergraduate tuition aid will now have to report the amount to the IRS as taxable income, unless the school revamps the program so it won't discriminate in favor of the more highly paid. For graduate students, the tax break was eliminated entirely.
The non-discrimination provisions take effect July 1, so they'll affect next year's tuition. The schools are waiting for IRS regulations to find out exactly how their programs should be run.