Student loan debt is at an all-time high of $1.56 trillion, according to Forbes. The only thing that ranks higher is mortgage debt, which is why Forbes also reported that student loan relief was the ”hottest employee benefit” of 2018.
Both Forbes and Glassdoor made rankings of the top companies offering aid to student debt relief. Fidelity Investments made both lists.
Fidelity’s program to help employees pay off student debt launched in January 2016. Cindy Silva, Fidelity’s head of financial wellness strategy, said the program was created after Chairwoman Abby Johnson heard a lot about associates and employees putting off things like saving for retirement, buying a home or even moving out of their parents’ house because they were paying off their student debt.
“(Johnson) was hearing this over and over again ... and so she came back and asked the benefits team to sort of take a look at that and see what could we do as a firm to help our associates,” Silva said.
According to Silva, there wasn’t much in the marketplace at the time that was helping employees or company associates pay off student debts, just “inklings.”
Fidelity formed its student debt relief program at the end of 2015. For eligible individuals, Fidelity makes a contribution of $166.67 per month, a number Silva said is “incredibly specific” but the math adds up to $2,000 a year.
“There was nobody else doing anything like this, so we had to just try to come up with it, through conversations with associates, through our own personal experiences with student loan debt, what was a number that was going to be helpful,” Silva said. “And also just sort of mathematically work out.”
The goal, Silva said, is to help employees become debt-free as soon as possible. For local Fidelity employee Matt Schirle, he predicts he’ll be able to pay off his student loans four years earlier than he originally thought, which allowed him to be able to purchase a home with his girlfriend. They just closed on their new home Friday.
“Being able to participate (in this program) is a great feeling,” Schirle said. “Now I can start contributing to long-term retirement goals.”
Over 9,000 associates like Schirle have taken advantage of Fidelity’s program, Silva said, which amounts to roughly $30 million worth of savings, or $6,000 per person. And it benefits the company as well — Silva said Fidelity’s turnover rates reduced 75% in the first year of the program.
Companies don’t necessarily have to offer benefits like this, Silva said, but being able to reduce employee stress typically benefits the company they work for as well. If an employee is spending three hours a week worrying about finances, for example, providing a sort of financial aid means that’s three more hours they can be productive instead.
“It’s not something that we feel like we necessarily have to do,” Silva said. “But for us, we feel philosophically that it just ends up being really the right thing for us to do.”
While aiding in debt relief for Fidelity can act as a recruitment or retention tool, for other companies it serves as a form of advertising.
Local Utah company Neighbor announced last month the launch of a new program, where the company will pay one customer’s mortgage every month. Joseph Woodbury, Neighbor co-founder and CEO, said the idea for the program was two-fold: one, most of Neighbor’s business comes from word-of-mouth advertising, and two, they heard several stories from customers who used Neighbor as a side job to pay off their monthly mortgages.
“A lot of our users will pay off 20 or 50% of their mortgage, or some of our users make more than their mortgage payment,” Woodbury said. “We thought ... what is the way we could give back and also incentivize this behavior ... and we said the people that are sharing us deserve something in return.”
Current hosts or renters participating in the referral program get “points” every time they send out an invite. They get more points if one of the people they invited creates an account, and then even more points if a person they invited begins using Neighbor actively. Whoever has the most points at the end of the month, Neighbor will pay off their mortgage for that month.
“We’re happy to reward customers for helping us grow our business,” Woodbury said. “And it’s fun, and it builds community.”
Using Neighbor allowed Provo local Sariah Masterson to quit her full-time job and stay at home with her two-year-old daughter, Lydia, because the money she and her husband make from renting out storage space is enough to pay off her student loans each month, just around $150.
“I’m not making thousands of dollars, but that $100 just makes it possible,” Masterson said.
She thinks Neighbor’s new program is “cool,” and a smart business move for the company to encourage growth. “It’s smart on their part,” she said.
Although these programs are helpful to people, it does raise the question of why it’s necessary. From 1989 to 2016, the cost of attending university increased eight times faster than wages, according to Forbes. For some, it seems that unless they get help paying off student debt, they’ll spend their whole lives trying to pay it off. More companies like Fidelity have begun to offer employee help for student loans, and Woodbury said as a startup, he considers Neighbor a leader in the area of debt relief.
“I think you are starting to see a trend where people, companies that operate in a niche area realize that they have a unique ability to address problems in that specific area,” Woodbury said. “(The majority of) Americans can’t even afford a $500 emergency. We’ve got a lot of users on our site that make $500 a month, so it really changes the dynamic.”
It remains to be seen if more companies will begin to offer these types of benefits — but for those who do, so far, the benefits outweigh the cost.
“The ability to help associates not have a particular stressor in their life ends up ultimately benefiting the company,” Silva said.