EBRI Issue Brief

Student Loan Debt Trends and Employer Programs to Help

Dec 6, 2018 23  pages


Over the past two decades, student loan debt has been increasing precipitously. This debt has affected a great number of young workers and even older workers. Consequently, employers have begun to look at benefit programs to help workers with this debt, as it can have lifelong financial consequences, including impacting retirement savings and homeownership. 

This Issue Brief summarizes the Employee Benefit Research Institute web briefing on student loan debt and employer student loan debt assistance programs. It is broken up into three parts: Craig Copeland covering an overview of student loan debt held by families, Neil Lloyd examining employer programs for student loans, and Alex Smith discussing the City of Memphis’ student loan repayment program.

Overall, the percentage of families with student loan debt grew from 10.5 percent in 1992 to 22.3 percent in 2016. For families with heads younger than age 35, the percentage with student loan debt approaches one half (45 percent), and the percentage is over a third for those with a family head ages 35 to 44. In 1992, among families having student loan debt, 85.0 percent were families with a head younger than 45 years of age. However, by 2016, this percentage had fallen to 66.7 percent. In its place, the share of families with heads ages 45–54 with student loan debt increased from 8.9 percent in 1992 to 19.5 percent in 2016.

Neil Lloyd, Partner, Head of DC & Financial Wellness Research, Mercer, describes some of the programs that employers have undertaken, including consolidation and refinancing. He also discusses some of the more unique programs, such as repayment programs and a 401(k) plan matching program. In addition, the challenges and positive attributes of the various programs are considered.

Alex Smith, Chief Human Resources Officer for the City of Memphis, outlined the city’s repayment program, which was the first of its kind for a public sector entity. She explained the development and the mechanics of the program while also providing evidence of the benefits to both the workers through reduced student loan debt and to the City of Memphis from higher retention and engagement of the program’s participants.

Student loan debt is going to continue to be an important issue for all workers regardless of age. Thus, employers looking to attract and retain workers can develop creative programs to address one of the more pressing issues facing workers. As workers recognize the lifelong financial consequences of having student loans, workers will look for employers who provide student loan programs, because without assistance, catching up for many will be very difficult to do.