College debt relief could be next big workplace perk
Minneapolis – — A growing number of companies are dangling a recruitment perk that is tailor-made for the millennial generation: debt relief.
Free snacks and gym memberships don’t hold the allure they once did for young people entering the working world. Buried under student loans of more than $29,000 on average, they want help.
“For this millennial group, it’s more important than the 401(k),” said Tim DeMello, CEO and founder of Gradifi Inc., which expects to set up loan pay-down plans for 100 companies this year. “They’re 24 years old. They don’t care about retirement.”
Companies are dreaming up a variety of incentives. Consulting giant PwC, for example, will pay $100 a month for up to six years against college loans of young workers.
Other firms are enticing potential hires with a lump-sum contribution — say, $10,000 — over a set time period, or capping low monthly payments with a balloon after a couple of years to build loyalty.
Although certain industries have offered repayment programs for years, PwC is the largest U.S. corporation to jump on the trend. Working through Gradifi, the program is open to any employee with less than six years on the job.
For Scott Papez, signing up for PwC’s program, which begins this spring, is a no-brainer. The 24-year-old started work as a tax associate in the company’s downtown Minneapolis office in July, carrying $40,000 in college debt from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
PwC’s contribution will cover about a third of the payments he and his wife make against their loans, giving him more freedom to plan for the future.
“You do think, when will we ever be able to afford a house, or we’d love to start a family down the road,” Papez said. “But the rate of saving for that kind of stuff is really reduced by the student debt that we carry.”
PwC estimates that 45 percent of its U.S. workforce — 22,000 employees — could be eligible for the program. The benefit could shave $10,000 off workers’ debt and shorten the payoff by up to three years.
“As we were developing these programs, we thought of all the different ways to compensate our people,” said Tom Montminy, who runs the Minneapolis PwC office. “Sometimes you’ve got to go right to the source and say, let’s give it to them where they need it most, which is paying down loans.”
Just 3 percent of companies offer repayment plans, according to National Debt Relief, a debt settlement company. They’re most often offered in law, medicine or technology fields, where talent is tight and education expensive. Teachers and government workers also may qualify for some programs.
But with $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loans in the United States, debt relief has become a major policy issue. Earlier this month, Gov. Mark Dayton announced a refinancing program to help relieve some of the financial burden on Minnesotans, who carry the fifth-highest college debt load in the nation.
Millennials, those born in the early 1980s to mid-1990s, have higher educational debt than any other generation. Nearly seven in 10 recent college graduates owe money, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Half say they would rather have their company make loan payments than contribute toward their health care or retirement.
LeeAnn Melin, assistant dean of undergraduate student initiatives at the University of Minnesota, said the financial burden is leading students to take a hard look at whether their degrees will lead to a high-paying job. About 60 percent of the university’s students carry debt, averaging nearly $26,000.
“The economic discussion has started to influence their choice of majors,” she said.
The private sector is taking note.
Within two years, Boston-based Gradifi expects to sign up 1,000 companies for its online platform, which has a database of more than 300 student loan service providers and the ability to add a new one within 24 hours.
Most of Gradifi’s current business clients are heavy with “knowledge workers,” such as those in high-tech, insurance, financial services and consulting, he said. But companies big and small have shown interest.
“It’s a big market,” said DeMello, adding that his company is gearing up for a slew of competitors. While he doesn’t think student loan pay-down plans will become as popular as the 401(k), he predicts that up to 100,000 employers will offer it within the next five to 10 years.
“It’s hit a nerve,” he said. “I think we’ll come up with a lot of creative programs over the course of the next year.”