Issue Briefs

Following is the section of the most recent annual report on use of the student loan reimbursement authority for federal employees in which OPM summarized the benefits that agencies reported and best practices for using the authority.

Effect on Recruitment and Retention

Agencies provided comments about the effect of their student loan repayment programs on recruitment and retention efforts. Representative comments are summarized below.

Departments:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that their student loan repayment program continues to be an effective recruitment and retention aid for hiring and retaining employees in critical and hard-to-fill positions. Their student loan repayment program has been an especially effective incentive tool for veterinarians given, in particular, the large debts many students incur while completing a school of veterinary medicine.

The U.S. Department of Commerce stated that its National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA), Minority Business Development Administration (MBDA), Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Office of Inspector General (OIG), and Office of Secretary (OS) have all utilized the SLRP to attract and retain employees in professional, administrative, and support occupations.

The U.S. Department of Defense has found the student loan repayment program provides the Department with a tool to compete with the private sector when attracting top talent. Furthermore, use of the student loan repayment program, when used as a retention tool, enhances the Department’s ability to retain its top performers when competing with the private industry. The use of this program also supports the goals of senior management and retains a well-qualified workforce.

The U.S. Department of the Interior stated that their student loan repayment program continues to be an invaluable resource that offers a tool to attract and retain highly-skilled employees. During CY 2017, approximately $500,000 of the reported student loan repayments was used to support recruitment for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) occupations, such as: petroleum engineer, biologist, geophysicist, and economist.

The U.S. Department of State found that employee feedback to the program has been very positive, as reflected in this Department’s success in their recruitment and retention efforts, as well as being able to provide assistance to academic achievers from varying socio-economic backgrounds. As reported previously, the State Department has found that over 6,000 employees have benefited from this program since its inception during 2002. In addition, hundreds of employees have had their loans successfully paid off by virtue of their service in one of the State Department’s designated pre-qualifying positions.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury stated that their student loan repayment program is currently an essential part of their recruitment and retention workforce strategy. The student loan repayment program is seen as essential to filling vacant positions and retaining employees in mission-critical positions.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs stated that local VA Medical Centers value student loan repayments as an incentive for the recruitment or retention of talented, highly-qualified employees.

Agencies:

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) reported that they compete with the private sector and other Federal agencies for top engineering talent at all levels, including recent graduates from colleges and universities. Student loan repayment benefits have proven to be an effective recruitment and retention tool for the Board, especially for certain positions (e.g., attorney and certain engineering positions) that the agency traditionally has found difficult to fill.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) used their student loan repayment program primarily as a retention tool and the agency has made substantial investments in this program since 2001. Highly-qualified employees in positions such as Attorneys, Engineers, and Energy Industry Analysts are essential to FERC’s mission and make up a majority of the SLRP recipients. However, FERC does not limit the program to employees only in those positions. In fact, FERC relies on this human capital flexibility to retain highly qualified employees in hard-to-fill positions (such as Fish Biologists and Trial Attorneys) as well as to retain employees with critical knowledge and skills that ensure efficient administrative operations (such as Information Technology Specialists).

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) continues to use the Student Loan Repayment Program to recruit and retain well qualified and high-performing employees.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) continues to use their student loan repayment program sparingly, primarily as a tool to retain employees who have served for a year or more in positions critical to NRC’s mission.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reported that among the employees who received the student loan repayment benefit in 2017, 146 were first-time participants. Approximately 72 percent of the payments were made to employees in their mission-critical occupations (e.g., Accountant, Attorney and Securities Compliance Examiner) at both the senior officer (“SO”) level and “SK” staff level. Overall, the Securities and Exchange Commission believes that their student loan repayment program has helped the agency to attract and retain a high performing and skilled workforce.

Best Practices

Some agencies shared best practices that they have developed to strategically implement and administer their student loan repayment programs. Examples of these best practices are noted below.

Departments:

The U.S. Department of Education shared the best practice of developing standardized student loan repayment forms to increase the efficiency of the program’s administration.

The U.S. Department of Treasury shared the best practice of creating an awareness campaign, which incorporates an overview of the SLRP into the mandatory “Strategic Consult” interaction between human resources and selecting officials, prior to a position’s recruitment.

The U.S. Department of State shared the following best practices:

Obtain management support from the most senior levels;
Have transparent eligibility criteria, centralized funding, as well as administrative oversight;
Establish a listing of mission-critical occupational series that can serve as the basis for program eligibility;
Expand SLRP eligibility, as a recruitment incentive, to non-Title 5 positions, such as Foreign Service Consular Fellows, serving under a time-limited appointment. This strategy may attract qualified applicants with unique skills sets, better able to provide mission support;
Implement eligibility requirements whereby an employee must still make individual personal payments towards the loan debt;

Expand outreach to the Department of Education and to lender/loan servicing organizations to request that payments be properly processed and credited only to the borrower’s federally-insured principle loan balance.
Expand the use of push communications (e.g., Department-level notices, telegrams, e-mail with auto message capability, SLRP Listserv postings, and briefings) to keep employees informed of the program’s requirements as well as policy or procedural changes;
Expand the reporting capability of existing SLRP data systems, including software and databases, to improve program management efficiency.
The U.S. Department of Defense shared the following best practices:

Use of the SLRP has proven to be a significant recruitment tool for highly-qualified individuals, particularly skilled in critical fields such as: technology, logistics, engineering, intelligence-related occupations, nurses, and contract specialists.
Monitoring the use of the program is critical, as well as establishing standard forms, and advertising the program to hiring managers and human resources personnel.
Try to invest time and effort to advertise the incentives within the vacancy announcements.
Suggest that the Departmental or bureau components create administrative instructions. These instructions can be as brief as one-page fact sheet guidance, including a standardized request form and a service agreement form. The local materials (or local policy) should be easy to understand. Fillable forms are often appreciated by applicants.
Use the SLRP as a recruitment incentive for new entrants into the entry-level workforce (GS 7/9/11) can be particularly effective.
Information can be provided quarterly to the overall workforce if appropriate communication venues are available. Such communication can be about the student loan program itself, its requirements, and the overall application process.

Agencies:

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) stated that their student loan repayment program is used to retain highly-qualified employees in positions (such as Attorneys, Engineers, and Energy Industry Analysts) that are essential to FERC’s mission and therefore make up a majority of the SLRP recipients. Each year the program is improved and adjusted according to available funding as well as changes in the level of participation. However, FERC does not limit the program to employees or job candidates associated with mission-critical positions. In fact, FERC relies on this flexibility to retain highly-qualified employees in other hard-to-fill positions (such as Fish Biologists and Trial Attorneys) as well as to retain employees with critical knowledge and unique skill sets that help ensure smooth and efficient operations (such as Information Technology Specialists).

FERC requires that managers provide written justifications regarding their use of the SLRP incentive. A majority of these justifications bring to light the recruitment challenge of competing for highly-qualified candidates in major urban labor markets where alternative employers in the private and non-profit sectors are numerous. The evidence from these justifications also suggests that the SLRP is considered a useful human capital retention tool when employees with high or unique qualifications consider leaving the agency, through resignation, to pursue higher salaries sometimes available outside of Federal service.

FERC started using SLRP over ten years ago and has since seen a very small number of employees separate while still covered under a SLRP service agreement. However, due to recent program growth, and to ensure program effectiveness, FERC established a team of senior managers drawn from each program office to be responsible for the program’s continuous evaluation. This team will serve as the SLRP review panel and will be responsible for measuring the program’s success as well as will provide recommendations on improvements that could be made to the program.

The General Services Administration (GSA) continues its efforts to improve accountability as well as to increase the program’s overall effectiveness. In support of this effort, this agency has institutionalized a comprehensive review process for this incentive authority. This new review process requires the approval of both the Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) and Chief Financial Officer before this incentive can be offered to a new appointee to Federal service, or, to an existing agency employee, to support the agency’s retention need.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) strives to maintain relevant statistics regarding its use of student loan repayment benefits, including the number and type of employees who receive those benefits, the amount of benefits authorized and paid, the status of existing service commitments, and the collection of debts associated with uncompleted service commitments. Given the DNFSB’s small size (approximately 110 employees), the above-described metrics currently support the DNFSB’s needs at this time.

The Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently launched a new automated workflow process to more efficiently accept and process SLRP incentive requests. This automated workflow process should allow for efficient processing as well as an improved ability to more accurately track the real-time status of SLRP request packages throughout the approval process. The SEC has also implemented a rolling review process in which submitters can provide documentation at any time to the appropriate human resources office for review and consideration. In addition, SLRP benefit payment disbursement options (once approved) allow for employees to request lump sum or bi-weekly payments to the loan provider. These efficiency enhancements to the program’s administrative have been well-received by the program’s participants.

The United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID) reinstated its student loan repayment program in CY 2017 after a four year hiatus. USAID completed an assessment of the prior program during December 2016, the results of which led to new processes procedures and parameters for the agency’s current participation. Some of the revisions made to the agency’s program included:

An expansion of eligibility criteria, to include both Civil Service and Foreign Services employees;
Implementation of an automated SLRP request and review process;
Full implementation of service agreement monitoring and tracking; and
Consistent processing of the Notice of Personnel Action, Standard Form (SF) 50 for statutory and regulatory recordkeeping purposes.