(AP Photo/The Register-Guard, Brian Davies, file)

There could be a new front in the perks arms race that Corporate America’s most generous companies have been waging to compete for talent. After unlimited vacation time and expanded parental leave, could helping to pay down student loan debt be next?

Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the global consulting and accounting firm, announced Tuesday it will begin helping its junior employees pay down their student loans next year. Starting next July, all of PwC’s associates and senior associates—roughly 45 percent of the firm's 46,000 employees, ranging from entry-level to about six years of experience—will become eligible to receive as much as $1,200 a year for up to six years toward their student loans. The benefit will be paid directly to the loan servicer of certified student loans, though it will still count as income for employees.

At a time when there is more than $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, paying for college is a big issue on the presidential campaign trail, and the average college student has racked up some $35,000 in loans, the new perk is designed to help the company recruit millennials to the firm. Their slightly older peers might be concerned about parental leave or time off, but the firm found student loan debt to be a particularly pressing issue among its youngest employees.

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"We have reached a tipping point," said Michael Fenlon, global talent director for PwC. "Student loan debt impacts the ability to save for retirement, so it has lots of secondary impact as well. We saw this as a way to provide leadership on a major societal issue, as well as something that's really important to our people."  

Fenlon said it was an effort to provide an innovative benefit, something that's increasingly important for companies to do to as the labor market improves and companies work harder to compete for talented employees. No longer are they simply trying to match the 401(k) benefits, vacation policies and health care programs of their competitive peers. They are also trying to stand out with unusually generous or distinctive corporate perks. "I think that's more important in benefits today," Fenlon said. "We’re seeing that today in extended parental leave policies." 

Experts on human resources say student loan repayment by employers is relatively rare. Only about 3 percent of companies offer to help pay down student debt, according to the latest employee benefits survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits for SHRM, said where they're typically found is in businesses that have difficulty recruiting specific types of employees, such as nurses. States have run similar programs for teachers, he said, as has the National Institutes of Health to attract physicians into certain kinds of health research.

But in PwC's case, the effort appears to be less about attracting specialized talent and more about standing out. "Employers are using unique benefits like this to differentiate themselves, especially among millennials entering the workforce," Carol Sladek, who leads work-life consulting at Aon Hewitt, said in an e-mail. "A benefit aimed at helping pay off these student loans is a great way to attract talent, enhance engagement, and develop a reputation as an employer of choice in a competitive labor market. From the employers' perspective, the cost of offering this benefit can be fairly low (relative to other traditional benefits), but the benefits in recruiting and engagement may be significant."

The new loan repayment at PwC will not require employees to meet any kind of threshold in terms of years of service to qualify, nor will they have to pay back the benefit if they leave before a certain point. For Fenlon, the move not only helps recruit and attract millennials; it underscores the firm's financial literacy initiatives and addresses a major issue for young people and their parents today. "We believe we’ve got to be part of the solution."

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