Recent headlines have declared student loan repayment assistance one of the hottest new workplace trends.
But in the more than five years since major companies like Aetna and Fidelity started helping employees pay down their student debt, the benefit is still only offered at an estimated 8% of companies, according to a Willis Towers Watson survey.
What if you work at the other 92%? Like any part of your compensation package (or life), it can help to simply ask for what you want. The result might have a greater impact than you think.
“We have employers tell us that one person came and talked to them,” says Romy Parzick, CEO of Vault, which manages educational assistance benefits for 1,500 clients. “And that sparked the benefit for [the whole company].”
Here’s how to light a fire at your company.
Gather your supporting evidence
If your company employs a large share of workers with a four-year degree, chances are, many of your coworkers are dealing with debt. Seven in 10 undergraduates now borrow to pay for their degree, and student debt spans generations: 8.7 million student loan borrowers are over 50 years old.
You can take your research one step further by looking for industry-specific borrowing stats, or even asking your employer to consider surveying employees to measure their debt levels.
If your company has highlighted its diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, Parzick says, be sure to point out data showing how student debt disproportionately affects Black and Latino borrowers, and how women hold 60% of all student debt.
At PwC, one of the first major companies to announce its Student Loan Payment program back in 2015, company leaders say that 62% of eligible Black employees and 52% of eligible Latino employees participate in the benefit, greater percentages than either white or Asian eligible employees. The consulting company, which pays up to $1,200 per year of eligible employees' student loans, had more than 16,000 workers sign up for the benefit within the first five years of its inception.
Sell it as a bottom-line benefit — not just an employee one
Once you’ve demonstrated that student loan assistance will help employees, it’s time to make the case that it’s a good business decision, too.
Benefits are widely acknowledged as a key part of employee recruitment and retention, so focus on those, says Theresa Adams, senior HR knowledge advisor with the Society for Human Resources Management.
About a quarter of employees polled in a recent Betterment survey said they’d leave their current jobs for one that offered student loan help. The share jumps to about half when looking at Gen Z workers alone.
In the case of Nebraska Medicine, a hospital chain with locations in the Omaha area, offering student loan assistance to bedside nurses led to a 55% increase in retention and saved the company $5 million in turnover costs, according to Prudential, which partnered with the hospital to design the benefit.
Even if you can’t find hard numbers, you CAN collect information on which employers hiring in your region or industry already offer the benefit. (You'll probably drum up a healthy list just by looking at the hiring pages of your competitors, Adams says).
Finally, make sure your employer (and HR department) is up-to-date on a helpful tax policy: As of 2020, $5,250 worth of student loan repayment assistance is considered tax-free for both the employer and the employee. The tax-advantaged status runs through 2025.
Go behind your boss’s back
O.K., we’re being tongue in cheek there. But if you don’t feel comfortable approaching someone with the power to introduce this benefit, try sending an email to one of the benefits providers that operate in this space, such as Tuition.io, Gradifi, Goodly and Bright Horizons' EdAssist.
Even though Vault does business-to-business sales, Parzick says it’s not uncommon for individuals to email her company and say, ‘Hey, how do I get this benefit at my workplace? Can you help?’
After receiving one of those emails, Vault’s salespeople then contact the company in question, letting the company know an (unnamed) employee reached out. Her team has found that type of cold outreach is much more likely to lead to a call back than one without an employee’s request.
“That’s an interesting indicator of how much employers value what their employees are looking for,” she says.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Theresa Adams' name.