College debt can be a real burden for employees. In fact, about a third of adults under age 30 and 22% of those between ages 30 and 44 have student loan debt, according to Pew Research. What’s more, a quarter of them still owe $43,000 or more.
It’s no wonder that employers are starting to take notice. Currently, 8% of companies offer some kind of student loan benefit that helps employees pay down their educational debt. While that’s a step in the right direction, it still leaves 92% that don't.
“Student debt is a crippling issue in our country, totaling $1.6 trillion, and the lion's share of this debt sits with millennials who make up a significant portion of the working force that companies want to attract,” says Alyssa Schaefer, chief marketing officer of Laurel Road, a digital lending platform and brand of KeyBank that offers student loan refinancing. “Our research shows that 71% of employees would find a student loan refinance benefit very important to them and 86% of working millennials would stay at a company for five years if a student loan benefit were offered.”
If your company doesn’t offer student loan benefits, that doesn’t mean the door is permanently closed on the issue. You can (and should!) ask if your employer would consider adding it to their benefits package. “The more companies hear from employees that student loan repayment is something they want—or that they’re leaving to work for places that offer the benefit—the more companies will be interested in implementing it,” says Regina Moravek, an HR consultant with workplace health company Bravely.
Here are some strategies for handling the conversation, from how to prepare to what to say.
1. Do Your Research
“Student loan–related benefits are a relatively new concept, even at progressive companies, so it’s important to equip yourself with an understanding of what student loan repayment programs are out there,” Schaefer says.
For instance, some companies pay a certain amount directly to employees for use toward student loans, such as $2,000 a year over five years with a maximum benefit of $10,000 per borrower. Others might pay a certain amount per month or year directly to the employee’s student loan servicer. Another option companies have is to partner with a lender or refinancer to pass on certain discounted rates or offers to their employees.
Armed with this information, you should have some idea of the type of program you’re hoping your employer will adopt, along with examples of other companies that are doing it. (Keep in mind that if you’re hoping your company will start offering stipends toward your student loan debt, it’s like asking for a raise, so you may have better luck focusing on refinancing programs.)
2. Stress the Value to Your Employer
There are a few reasons why your company may be open to the idea of student loan repayment. It can help attract and retain talent in a stretched job market—especially for smaller companies or industries that have a lot of competition for good talent. “They’re already doing things like this in nursing, because there’s a nursing shortage,” says Moravek.
The benefit will also make your company look good, period. “It’s such a great PR opportunity for an employer,” Moravek says. “It puts them on all kinds of ‘Great Employer to Work For’ lists, and it can be a very sexy thing to offer to their employees.”
Finally, depending on the benefit, it might not cost your employer anything extra to offer it. In the case where an employer partners with a lender or refinancer, for example, there’s often no fee to implement the program.
3. Time It Right
The time to approach someone about offering student loan repayment isn’t in the middle of open enrollment—or just before it. Your company will need to do their own research into available programs and decide what makes sense for them, and then hopefully implement the change. One option is to discuss this during your company’s review cycle, when raises and promotions are on the table. “Let your employer know what’s important to you and how they can continue to demonstrate they value you,” Schaefer says.
If you’re job hunting, you can talk about student loan repayment while interviewing. “Ask the employer whether a related benefit is already offered,” Schaefer says. “If it’s not, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to implement it during your interviewing process. But if they’ve been considering it, your request may push them to commit.”
4. Talk to the Right Person
Whom you approach will depend on timing. A performance review is a great time to bring it up with your boss. During the mid-performance cycle, however, it’s probably best to talk to someone in human resources. Set up a meeting to chat about the benefit, why you’re interested in it, and why it’s a great move for your company. And if they’re not the best person to speak to, they’ll likely pass you on to someone who can help.
5. Be Positive
Student debt can interfere with mental health, stress, and productivity—but during your conversation, make sure you maintain a positive perspective. “Highlight how much more productive and valued you think your fellow employees would feel if a student loan benefit were an option to alleviate some financial stress,” Schaefer says.