Americans collectively owe nearly $1.5 trillion in student loans -- more than twice the total a decade ago. It's a burden that weighs on millions of adults, shaping their life choices and often stunting their financial growth.

Now a small but growing number of employers are stepping in to help. About 8 percent of employers offer student loan repayment assistance in 2019, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. That's up from 4 percent in 2018 and 3 percent in 2015.

Some experts anticipate more employers will add their own programs to help hire and hold on to a younger generation of workers that is more bogged down with debt than its predecessors and increasingly cites loan repayment assistance as a benefit they need to have.

"The burden of student loan debt has become salient and exhausting," said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter. "It's crushing ... there is huge demand for student loan assistance."

In 2016-2017, almost 60% of people who graduated with a bachelor's degree took on debt and the average amount among that group was $28,500, according to The College Board. For some who seek advanced degrees, the borrowing can grow to $100,000 or more.

Brittany Hamilton, 27, graduated from college in 2015 with $32,000 in debt, even though she worked full time while earning her bachelor's degree. She went to work for Fidelity Investments shortly after graduation; a few months later the company rolled out its student loan repayment assistance program.

Fidelity developed the program after a number of employees -- who were well-versed in budgeting and planning for financial goals -- told CEO Abigail Johnson that they were having trouble doing the same in their own lives in large part because of student debt.

In turn, Fidelity decided to offer its employees monthly assistance up to $10,000 total over the course of 5 years. The financial services firm says more than 10,000 employees have taken advantage of the program since it was introduced in 2016.

Hamilton, currently a Fidelity relationship manager at an investor center in Naples, Florida, makes a regular monthly payment of $184 and Fidelity makes a $167 contribution. To date, the company has contributed almost $7,400 to help pay down her balance.

Hamilton estimates Fidelity's program will help her shave three years off her payment time frame.

She also hopes to take advantage of another workplace benefit, which allows her to put any bonuses or added compensation toward her balance, and get the loans paid off by 2021. She's aiming to buy a home in 2020.

"It was a major stressor for me," she says. "Now it doesn't really stress me out at all. "

Employers format repayment assistance in a variety of ways. Some offer a match of employee payments while others offer a flat contribution amount, both up to a threshold.

Estée Lauder Cos. offers its U.S. employees who have been at the company at least a year $100 a month toward their student loans, up to $10,000 total. It launched the program in 2017 and nearly 1,000 people have signed up; about 80 percent are millennials, according to the beauty products company.

Streaming service Hulu launched a student loan assistance program last year that includes monthly payments to a lender, as well as resources to help students find the most efficient way to pay off their loans.

Several companies say their programs have proven an effective recruitment and retention tool, particularly in this tight labor market.

Fidelity said its employees regularly cite loan assistance as one of their top benefits and a key reason for joining the company. Additionally, those who are enrolled have a 70% lower turnover rate in the first year than their peers.

"(Companies) are looking at alleviating stress, to shave that strain out of daily life so they (employees) can be more happy and engaged citizens of your workforce," says Asha Srikantiah, head of Fidelity's student debt program.

Fidelity now even offers a variety of student debt assistance repayment programs to clients, catered to their needs.

It's a puzzle why more private employers have not offered such benefits, said ZipRecruiter's Pollack, despite demand from employees. The companies are not paying off the full loan and, for a minor cost they are greatly boosting employee morale.

"It's an easy win," said Stephen Kapusta, vice president of channel strategy at ADP, a human resource services company.

Part of the problem is that money given to employees to help pay off student loans can be considered income and be taxed. So, there is little financial incentive from a tax perspective for the employee or employer.

As such, employers have had to find more creative work arounds -- such as paying the provider directly, as Fidelity does, or trying a more unique retirement payment solution.

Abbott Laboratories, a medical devices company, launched its Freedom 2 Save program to help employees meet the dual challenges of needing to pay down debt and save for retirement.

Under the program, participants must show that they are paying 2 percent of their salary toward student debt repayment and, in exchange, Abbot contributes 5 percent to their 401(k) without requiring the employee to contribute anything.

Abbott found the program was a useful tool for recruiting people who need advanced degrees that often require additional loans. About two-thirds of the company's employees have master's degrees or PhDs.

Fidelity's Asha said some changes are being considered in Washington that could encourage more employers to get on board in the near future.

In early 2019, a bipartisan bill was introduced that, if passed, would allow employers to contribute up to $5,250 tax-free every year toward student debt repayment. Others are looking to the IRS for broader guidance on ways to contribute to student debt repayment in conjunction with their workplace retirement plan.

All the same, more employers are expected to add such benefits.

"The trend is certainly set to continue because of huge demand from employees and job seekers," Pollack said.

--Associated Press

Published on: Oct 29, 2019