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Student Debt Assistance With a (Small) Catch May Be the Hottest New Benefit

Insurance company Unum is extending assistance to its employees, who average $32,000 apiece in student debt.


With the labor force so tight these days and millennials constituting a growing proportion of the workforce -- they're predicted to hold 75 percent of U.S. jobs by 2025 -- you may be one of those (many) employers shopping for ways to attract more of these smart, tech-savvy young'uns into your fold.

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One obvious choice here is assistance with college debt, a financial albatross which harshly impacts Americans' lives: According to the Federal Reserve, 6.8 million student loan borrowers between ages 40 and 49 -- decades after their college sojourns have ended -- still owe, on average, $33,765 each.

Related: Why You Should Care About Student Loan Debt

That's a level of debt particularly hard to swallow if you're fresh out of college, still in your 20s and pulling in a modest paycheck. Seven out of 10 new college graduates, on average, owe $37,172. And that means that young people's hope to start a family or buy a house may have to be deferred -- a long time. No wonder an American Student Assistance survey of 502 young people ages 22 to 33 found that 56 percent of them reported worrying about student debt either "often" or "all the time."

No wonder too that Forbes called student debt assistance the "hottest employee benefit of 2018."

For these reasons, Unum Group, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based corporate insurance company with 8,600 U.S. employees (plus 750 in the U.K.) decided to join the growing number of employers offering student debt assistance -- with a catch: Unum's debt offer specifies that employees taking the assistance trade vacation in return.

In fact, they can trade up to five days or 40 hours of PTO. In return, they'll receive the cash equivalent of their hourly pay for those eight-hour days -- an average of $1,200 per employee, the company says. This money will then be invested in a tax-free account.

This trade might in fact look sexy to Unum's employees, whose generous PTO policy gives them at least 28 vacation days, with carryover privileges (40 hours' worth per year). The reason: According to company surveys, those employees owe, on average, $32,000 in student debt to four different loan organizations. But the obvious question is, why the need for a tradeoff?

"All we're doing is adding a level of choice," Carl Gagnon, assistant vice president of Global Financial Well-being and Retirement Programs at Unum, said in a phone interview. "If the PTO is valuable to them, they can keep it. If they want to trade the value of the PTO to pay off some of their student debt, they can do that too. It's simply a matter of choice."

"Choice" is an important part of Unum's benefits philosophy, but the idea of adding debt assistance on top of existing benefits was a nonstarter, Gagnon said. "It was pretty expensive," he explained. He added that the company surveyed employees through its "emerging leaders" focus groups and found a "very enthusiastic" response to the tradeoff option. He also said that the company's research found that the student debt burden "crosses all generations" at the company.

The vp added that it's too early to determine how many takers there'll be for what Unum has dubbed its "Student Debt Relief Program," but that the company announcement early in 2019 was geared towards helping employees decide how much PTO carryover to defer to 2020, in order to trade it for debt assistance. Fidelity Investments will partner with Unum to transfer the money to the empoloyee's loan processor. Such monthly contributions are applied to the loans' principal and can shave years off those crushing student loans.

Related: How Student Loans Are Crushing Millennial Entrepreneurialism

Gagnon said he believed that Unum is "one of the first" companies to offer this kind of trade and said that the program, announced Jan. 30, had already generated "a lot" of interest among companies the insurer does business with.

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