When it comes to covering college costs, employers offer more help than signing your paycheck.
Don't discount that contribution: Savings and especially parent income account for 32 percent of the average family's college funding for an undergraduate degree, according to Sallie Mae's How America Pays for College 2015 report.
But don't stop there. Whether you're hoping to return to school or are planning to help fund a spouse or child's education, it's likely your company offers some perks to lessen the burden. Some are still uncommon, but it's to your advantage to ask, said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher at Edvisors.com. "It lets your employer know what financial concerns their employees have, and it can lead to the employer adding a benefit," he said.
Six resources to ask about:
Tuition reimbursement. Roughly 85 percent of employers will reimburse some amount for educational expenses such as tuition and textbooks, according to benefits consulting firm Aon Hewitt. That's as much as $5,250 tax free, depending on the cap the company sets. Usually, this is a deal available only to employees heading back to college, but some firms also extend it to workers' children, said Kantrowitz.
Read the terms carefully. It's not unusual for companies to restrict reimbursement to courses and programs with ties to your current field, or to require high grades to get the cash. You might also need to sign papers agreeing to pay back the funds if you leave the company shortly after earning that degree. "They're only going to support you if they see a clear benefit," he said.
College planning. Not sure how much you should save, or the best strategies? Almost 40 percent of large employers, and 15 percent of all employers, offer workers financial wellness programs related to saving for college, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch's 2015 Workplace Benefits report. Those might be seminars, online resources or a one-on-one session with a financial advisor. Even better, about a quarter of employers offer or are considering offering incentives such as cash or discounts on insurance premiums for participating.
529 plans. A small but growing number of employers let workers make payroll deductions into a 529 college savings account. In 2014, 7.6 percent of companies did so, up from 6.8 percent in 2012, according to a survey from trade magazine Plansponsor.
Right now, plans are mostly a convenience for employees—no need to arrange contributions on your own—although a few companies offer matching funds, said Joseph Hurley, chief executive of Savingforcollege.com. There are tax considerations, however: Your payroll deduction is still counted as taxable income, as is that match (unless the company opts to cover it). State deductions and credits can help sweeten the deal.
Tuition deals. Starbucks and Fiat Chrysler are among the companies that offer workers free degrees at partner colleges, while Walmart associates and eligible family members can save 15 percent on tuition. "If it works out, it can be a very attractive incentive for you," said Hurley. Make sure the program fits with your career goals, he said. Most partnerships focus on online programs, which may be more feasible for some majors than others.
Then there's Boxed, whose CEO pledged earlier this year to cover four years of tuition for employees' children. (Workers are still on the hook for room, board and books.)
Scholarships. If you have a student in high school, don't forget to ask about scholarship potential. Plenty of companies offer awards for children and even grandchildren of workers and retirees. Companies including Walmart, Wegmans, GameStop and Cracker Barrel also expand the pool to include current employees furthering their education.
Loan repayment. Workers saddled with student loans may want to ask about loan repayment assistance programs, said Kantrowitz. Offers are few and far between, he said, but some companies do offer cash to help pay down your balance. Some state and local governments offer such incentives, too, which could help entrepreneurs or professionals like doctors deciding where to set up shop.