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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies are starting to play a role in chipping away at America's mounting pile of student debt.

Why it matters: Widespread student debt relief proposals have stalled in Washington. Businesses are seizing on an opening that benefits them too: a perk that lures workers — and in some cases, a tax break.

Catch up quick: A provision tucked in the initial COVID-19 relief package offers a tax incentive for businesses that contribute to employee student debt payments. It's since been extended through 2025.

  • How it works: Companies can put up to $5,250 toward each employee’s student debt annually on a tax-free basis. (Employees won’t pay taxes on it either.)
  • Tuition assistance up to that amount was tax exempt before the passage of the federal relief package.

Yes, but: “Many of the most vulnerable borrowers — including those who lost jobs during the pandemic — will not receive help from their employers,” says Sarah Sattelmeyer of think tank New America.

  • Implementing a program like this may be too expensive or burdensome for some companies. (That’s if they know about it at all.)
  • Of note: It’s unclear how many companies have taken advantage of the pandemic-era tax incentive. Before COVID-19, about 8% of companies offered student debt repayment — up from 4% in 2018, according to SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management).

What they’re saying: “Corporations are the beneficiary of the education that students got. So we should be willing to help them reduce [student debt] — or pay it off completely,” Dan Rosensweig, CEO of Chegg, the online education company, tells Axios.

  • Chegg, known for its textbook rental service and other online services for students, started a student debt repayment program in 2019 with $5,000 per year offered to employees at the company for at least 2 years.
  • About $700,000 cumulatively has been paid off for the program's 146 participants.

The backdrop: Employers are playing a bigger role in tackling college costs in an attempt to attract workers — and keep the ones they have from jumping ship.

  • Walmart and Target became the latest to cover tuition costs at select colleges.

What’s next: Pandemic relief for student debt expires next year — following what the Biden administration billed “the final extension” for freezes on federal loan payments and defaulted loan collections.

Go deeper

Study: Fear of debt keeps Latinos out of college

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Fear of never being able to pay off school loans is keeping many young Latinos in the U.S. from going to college or completing a degree, according to a report published in September.

State of play: Latinos tend to have more difficulty repaying school debt than white student borrowers, according to Federal Reserve data, at the same time that they need more loans in order to afford tuition.

Howard president: Occupation of student center "must end"

Tents set up near the Blackburn University Center as students protest poor housing conditions on the campus of Howard University Oct. 25. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick in a letter to students and staff Monday said a weeks-long student sit-in at a campus student center "must end."

Catch up fast: Students began their occupation of the Blackburn Center on Oct. 12, aiming to get school officials to address safety concerns in campus housing, and to give students representation on the board of trustees.

Senate Democrats unveil new income tax for billionaires

Sen. Ron Wyden. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Democrats on Wednesday released a billionaires' tax proposal, designed to help support President Biden's social spending and climate change legislation.

Why it matters: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the Billionaires Income Tax would raise "hundreds of billions of dollars" and would affect approximately 700 taxpayers who have more than $1 billion in assets or incomes of over $100 million a year.