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Small-business owners make the case for helping employees repay student loans

(Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

As Josh Udashkin took his luggage company Raden from a one-man operation to an outfit with nearly two dozen employees, rewarding those who helped him build out the company was important. But rather than offer a standard benefits package with a retirement plan, the 33-year-old chief executive wanted to provide something with a more immediate impact.

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Udashkin enlisted the help of CommonBond, an education lender that also helps companies set up student loan benefits. Together, they came up with a program in which Raden matches the monthly loan payments of its employees.

“It’s one of these micro-level things that you can do to really make people’s lives better,” Udashkin said. “Education debt is not optional for many people and can hold them back.”

Small businesses like Raden are leading the way in helping employees pay down college debt, proving that you don’t have to be a Fortune 500 company to offer the benefit. A crop of start-ups, including LendEDU, Chegg, Mitre and Kronos, are giving student loan assistance as much weight as health-care plans in their employee packages. The benefit is no small expense, but at a time when millions of young people are entering the workforce with tens of thousands of dollars in education debt, it is an enticing offer.

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“It’s not the cheapest benefit in the world,” said Ravi Parikh, who co-founded the data analytics company Heap. “But I wanted to offer something really positive that’s going to attract people here. It’s pretty competitive to get good people right now in Silicon Valley, and this is meaningful and differentiated.”

Parikh said Heap has witnessed a fair amount of revenue growth in the past year and wanted to beef up the benefits package. Student loan assistance was a natural fit, he said, because of the company’s young workforce. He said about a third of his 45 employees are paying off college loans and could use the help. Heap is in the midst of rolling out the perk, which provides a monthly contribution of $100 toward the principal balance.

For now, Teckst, a company that enables two-way text messaging for customer service teams, is offering about $50 a month to offset student loan payments. Half of the New York-based company’s 12 full-time employees have signed up, said founder Matt Tumbleson.

Teckst had initially offered a 401(k) match, but retreated as investors became weary of the costs. Tumbleson said student loan assistance costs almost as much as providing a retirement plan, but has been worth the expense.

“The cost is negligible when it comes to attracting and keeping the best talent,” he said. “We’ll eventually get a 401(k) as we grow, but this benefit addresses a more immediate need for our employees. A majority of our team is just a few years out of college.”

With about 70 percent of college students graduating with debt, companies are taking notice of student loan assistance programs. Although only 4 percent of companies surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management last year said they offer the perk, the number is steadily growing. Advisory firm Willis Towers Watson anticipates that the number of companies offering student loan benefits will grow to nearly 20 percent by next year.

There are efforts on Capitol Hill to support the perk through the tax code. A bipartisan bill, introduced by Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.), would give companies a tax break for providing employees up to $5,250 a year to repay education debt, while sparing employees from being taxed on the money. The deduction is comparable to existing tax benefits for tuition reimbursement. The legislation is wending its way through Congress.

Although some companies are waiting on the tax break to pull the trigger, others such as Raden have forged ahead. Six members of the staff have taken advantage of the pretax student loan program, receiving up to $200 a month in assistance. Udashkin said he’s not too concerned about the benefit eating into company profits as the business scales up because he runs a pretty lean operation otherwise.

Providing the perk is his way to encourage entrepreneurialism. Udashkin, who graduated from business and law school in Canada without any debt, said he couldn’t imagine taking the risks of starting a business with the kind of six-figure debt that is common for people with advanced degrees in the United States.

“The lifeblood of the American economy is having some people go out, take risks and be able to build businesses,” he said. “It’s really hard to take risks when you’re already starting life encumbered by liabilities around your education.”