Just as the Federal Reserve raises rates and inflation hits a 40-year high, Americans with federal student loan debt will start making payments on the debt after a two-year pause. On Aug. 31, the Department of Education will require 41 million people with student loans to begin paying again.
According to the Federal Reserve, about one in five Americans have federal student loan debt and they saved $5 billion per month from the forbearance. It’s safe to say that a lot of people are going to struggle to restart those payments again and some of them work for banks.
The good news is that there are new employee programs that can help. One CARES Act provision allowed companies to pay up to $5,250 toward an employee’s student loans without a negative tax hit for the employee. Ally Financial, Fidelity Investments, SoFi Technologies, and First Republic Bank are a few of the many financial companies offering this benefit to employees. First Republic launched its program in 2016, after its purchase of the fintech Gradifi, which helps employers repay their employees’ loans. These programs typically pay between $100 and $200 a month on an employee’s loans, and usually have a cap.
The 2020 Bank Director Compensation Survey shows that 29% of financial institutions offered student loan repayment assistance to some or all employees. Many of those programs discontinued when the student forgiveness program started. In the anticipation of government forbearance coming to a close, now is a good time to think about restarting your program or even developing one.
Americans now hold $1.59 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve. How did we get here? College got more expensive— much more expensive.
Earlier this summer, the Federal Reserve and Aspen Institute had a joint summit to discuss household debt and its chilling effect on wealth building. The average cost of college tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions has risen 179.2% over the last 20 years for an average annual increase of 9.0%, according to EducationData.org.
At the same time, wages have not shown much inflation-adjusted growth. ProPublica found in 2018 that the real average wage of workers, after accounting for inflation, has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And inflation in 2022 has far outpaced wage increases. Some economists speculate that any pandemic-era wage increases are effectively nullified by this rapid inflation.
Not all borrowers are equally impacted. Sixteen percent of graduates will have a debt-to-income ratio of over 20% from their student loans alone, according to the website lendedu.com, while another 28% will have a DTI of over 15%. The 44% of graduates with that level of debt exiting school will face a steep climb to meaningful wealth building. The students that didn’t graduate will have an even harder climb.
Those graduates who struggle with their student loans will be less likely to buy a home or more likely to delay home ownership. They will be less likely to take on business debt or save for retirement. Housing prices have risen in tandem with education prices. The “starter home” of generations past has become unattainable to many millennial and Gen Z debt holders.
More than half of borrowers owe $20,000 or less. Seven percent of people with federal debt owe more than $100,000, according to The Washington Post. Economists at the Federal Reserve say borrowers with the least amount of debt often have difficulty repaying their loans, especially if they didn’t finish their degree. Conversely, people with the highest loan balances are often current on their payments. It’s likely that people with higher loan debt generally have higher education levels and incomes.
The Aspen Institute published a book known as “The Future of Building Wealth: Brief Essays on the Best Ideas to Build Wealth — for Everyone,” in conjunction with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. It illuminates long-term solutions for financial planning, focusing on policies and programs that could be applied at a national scale.
In the absence of these national solutions, some employers are taking the matter into their own hands with company policies designed to help employees with student debt. Those banks are making a difference for their own employees and are part of the solution.