Helping Employees With College Debt and Savings

Offering workers help in managing or even paying back their student loans is a benefit valued by employees and will ultimately help them save for retirement.

Be it carrying student loan debt well into middle age or saving for a child’s college education, Americans are increasingly finding that funding a college degree puts a major drag on retirement saving.

While young adults may delay saving for retirement because of crushing student loans, and parents may consider it their duty to fund their child’s higher learning, people should not lose sight of their own needs in retirement, advisers say.

“Student loan debt is the No. 1 baggage that people come in with when they start a career,” notes James Sullivan, vice president of Essex Financial in Essex, Connecticut. “A monthly payment of $600 or $800—more than a car payment—can be crippling.”

Indeed, a survey by IonTuition found that 70% of students graduate from college with student loan debt averaging $37,172 and that people carry this debt well into their adult years; 44% of Millennials carry student loan debt, while the same is true for 26% of Generation X and 13% of Baby Boomers. IonTuition, in fact, discovered a direct link between student loan debt and retirement savings, finding that people with no student loans have a median retirement savings balance of $56,000 but that people with student loans have a median balance of $31,000.

The majority of the borrowers are paying their loans back over decades, notes Mike Brown, managing director of Nitro, in Wilmington, Delaware. While only large companies have begun offering workers help in managing or even paying back their student loans, Brown hopes this benefit will resonate among more employers. “It’s a tremendous way to attract talent,” he says. 

The IonTuition survey found that only 4% of employers provide assistance with student loan repayment but that 76% of Americans think it would be an excellent benefit, 36% would prefer student loan repayment benefits over a 401(k), and 29% would prefer these benefits over health benefits.

NEXT: College savings

The next big hurdle Americans face when it comes to education savings, of course, is putting their children through college. For many parents, this takes complete priority over their own retirement saving, Brown notes.

“Too often, I see someone in their 50s saying, ‘Now the kids are done with college, and I’ll start saving for retirement,’” Sullivan says. “I get why we see this, but it is far harder for a 55-year-old to come up with a sufficient retirement plan than it is for a 35-year-old.”

John Burke, CEO of Burke Financial Strategies in Iselin, New Jersey, says that, even for his clients, who have an average balance of $1 million and a household income of $150,000 to $200,000, funding college is an issue.

“The majority of our clients save in a 529 college savings plan, taking advantage of that great tax benefit, and may have a balance of $150,000. But even for a state school, which can cost $200,000 for four years, that will not be enough,” Burke says. “Maybe they have two kids and are facing a $400,000 bill. That will make it a real struggle for them to come up with enough to retire on at the standard of living they’re accustomed to.”

For the majority of Americans, college savings are far more meager than this. A survey by Sallie Mae and Ipsos found that, while 57% of parents saved for college in 2016, their average balance was a mere $16,380.

Both Brown and Burke think parents should consider putting their child through two years of community college first to shave down the cost. Brown says parents should also calculate how much they can reasonably afford to spend and then have an honest conversation with their child about how much they can help.

“Otherwise, they will literally be mortgaging their future and their retirement,” Brown says. “We’re going to hear more and more about parents being unable to retire because of this debt burden.” The reality is, he says, people’s children may, in fact, need to take on student debt of their own.

While many student loans require parents to co-sign, there are alternatives available to parents such as a co-signer release or an income-driven repayment plan, according to Student Loan Hero. “There are other options for parents,” Brown notes. “They just need to explore them.”