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High time for workers to go back to school?

More education could give plenty of stalled careers a much-needed boost, and extended tax breaks will help foot the bill.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Amid all the brouhaha at year’s end over extending Bush-era income tax cuts, one important feature of the $858 billion tax package passed by the lame-duck Congress tended to get overlooked: At the last minute, almost as an afterthought, legislators approved a two-year extension of Section 127, the part of the federal tax code that allows employers to hand out up to $5,250 a year in employer-funded tuition per employee, tax-free.

About a million Americans are pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees — at an average age of 37 and 35, respectively — under Section 127, according to a new study from the Society for Human Resource Management, but tuition programs have been hit hard by the economic downturn: 62% of employers now offer help with the cost (including tuition, fees, books, and supplies) of undergraduate studies, down from 68% in 2007, before the recession hit. Would-be grad students have seen an even bigger decline during the same period, from 65% to 56%.

The top four majors among students benefiting from Section 127: business (28%); sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (17%); education (15%); and health care-related fields (13%).

Tax-free tuition going to undergrads averages $1,849 per student, while grad school is pricier at $3,701.

With an average annual income of $42,711,  many of the students getting the tax break “would be unable to afford attending college but for the support provided by Section 127 benefits,” according to the SHRM report.

Now that the uncertainty surrounding Section 127’s renewal has been lifted, more employers may step up their education funding. That would be great news, given that the unemployment rate among bachelor’s and graduate degree holders now stands at about 5%, or about half the rate for the population overall.

What’s more, the share of newly created jobs that require at least some college education is rising fast, from 60% this year to 66.4% by 2015, according to research coming from Moody’s Analytics.

Small wonder, then, that a high-powered group called the Coalition to Preserve Employer Provided Education Assistance — which numbers among its members Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Texas Instruments (TXN), Verizon (VZ), the National Association of Manufacturers ( , and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ( — has been pushing to make Section 127 a permanent fixture of the tax code. There seems little reason not to: The provision has already been extended eight times since it was first passed in 1978.