Commentary: Employees’ personal finances are impacting the workplace more than you realize. In 2014, a Society of Human Resources Management Survey on Financial Wellness and Education found that 70% of HR professionals indicated personal finances impacted their employees’ performance. In addition, 50% of employers reported “employee stress” and “ability to focus on work” were most negatively affected by personal financial challenges. 

Employers are recognizing the financial challenges their employees are facing and are introducing more financial wellness initiatives to help alleviate some of this stress. The latest on this front is adding a 529 plan as a voluntary benefit.  As college costs continue to rise and student loan debt reaches unprecedented levels, a 529 plan can offer a valuable benefit for employees looking to meet their college savings objectives.

Also see:3 myths about 529 plans.”

Similar to a 401(k) plan, participants with a 529 option must understand the benefit, which revolves around three components: access, awareness and convenience.

Access

In today’s day and age, information is plentiful but the overload can be overwhelming. Often times we are presented with too many choices and it stifles our action. By partnering with a 529 provider, employers can provide access to a college savings expert to help demystify all the options. 

In 2015, Ascensus College Savings conducted a brief survey of the attendees at the national SHRM conference and found that most HR representatives were aware of 529 plans (71%), but far fewer (43%) realized they could offer a 529 as a voluntary benefit. Only 10% of respondents were currently offering college savings as part of their benefits package. 

Also see:Student loan debt repayment takes priority over retirement planning.”

Making the information more readily accessible in the workplace and having a dedicated point of contact are viable options available to most employers. Supporting financial wellness initiatives is the first step to empowering employees with access to the right information so they can make sound financial decisions, which ultimately creates a more engaged and healthier workforce.    

Awareness

Most parents recognize the importance of college and the need to save, but may not be fully aware of the benefits 529 plans can offer.  All plans offer tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals when used for qualified higher education expenses. However, according to our recent marketing survey, that tax savings is often overlooked, as parents say they are saving for college in a regular non-tax favored accounts.   

In addition, many parents may not be aware of the differences between plans.  Each 529 is state-sponsored and many include a special in-state tax benefit that is forfeited if families choose an out-of-state plan. There are also various investment options and a choice of direct- or adviser-sold plans, which affects the fees parents pay for their plan.

Also see:PwC, Starbucks take different approaches to helping workers pay for college.”

In our SHRM survey, we also identified that 77% of HR representatives listed “confusion over which state plan to offer,” and “perceived increase in workload,” as the primary reasons preventing them from offering a 529 as a voluntary benefit. In reality, there are resources available, even for multistate employers, to help navigate the various 529 offerings. In most cases, incorporating the right plan(s) requires far less work than you may think. 

Convenience

Often times we have things that we want to do, or have to do, but put them off due to inconvenience.  When employers offer college savings as a voluntary benefit, parents and families have the opportunity to learn about 529 plan options and contribute in an opportune way. 

Payroll direct deposit is not only a convenient way to save, but it inherently leverages an investment approach called dollar-cost averaging. This is a technique of buying fixed dollar amounts on a regular schedule in order to lessen the risk of investing a large amount at the wrong time. Payroll direct deposit also affords parents an opportunity to start with a smaller amount – and starting can be the hardest part.

Also see:7 tips to better recruit, engage millennials.”

Many plan sponsors and states offer on-site support services, which may include workshops and seminars to educate the staff on the details and nuances of each plan. Many plans also offer materials (posters, brochures, etc.) that make offering a 529 more self-sufficient. 

Building a stronger college-going culture, with less debt, begins with early education and planning, and employers across the country have recognized the importance of supporting financial wellness initiatives as part of a more robust benefits package.

George Makras is the director of institutional relationship management at Ascensus College Savings (formerly Upromise Investments, Inc.), an administrator of 529 plans. He is responsible for promoting and managing the use of state-sponsored 529 plans through employer and community group channels.

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