The Role of Corporate America in Curbing College Debt

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By Marc Berliner, Senior Vice President

By now, most of the 20.4 million students attending American colleges and universities this fall have returned to school. For many, going to class and socializing with friends are not the only things on their mind; many are wondering how they are going to pay for their education.

In research released this week, 2017 Cone Gen Z CSR Study: How to Speak Z, Cone’s findings reveal 92% of Gen Z wants companies to address the issue of high college costs – and with good reason. College debt is continuing to balloon; Americans owe over $1.4 trillion in student loan debt among about 44 million borrowers. The average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from last year.

The good news is that some progressive companies are stepping up to help address the issue. Here are a few examples:

  • Paying Down College Debt: Fidelity offers the “Step Ahead Student Loan Assistance” benefit, which allows employees at the manager level and below to receive up to $2,000 a year for student loan repayment. Over time, each employee can reduce their debt by as much as $10,000. Employees also get access to online tools to help them better manage their student loan debt.
  • Funding College Tuition: Starbucks is helping some of its employees avoid college debt altogether. Through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP)started in 2014, eligible baristas across the country get full tuition coverage for every year of college to earn their bachelor's degree online through Arizona State University.
  • Bolstering Financial Literacy: For many, knowing more about the expenses associated with college and financing their education put them in a better position to minimize and manage debt. Visa* offers a free online resource called Practical Money Skills with a section on preparing financially for college.

Beyond the work being done by leaders on the issue, there remains a huge opportunity for the business world at large to aid in finding a solution to the high cost of college and the student debt crisis. Before acting, it is important that companies develop a sound strategy for successful advocacy that both pressures other companies to become involved and makes a true difference. Here are a few key considerations:

  • Look Internally Before You Talk Externally – Quite simply, walk the talk. If your organization places a premium on the importance of college education – and this is a key part of your company narrative – then your policies and benefits should reflect that and implement initiatives that prove it. For instance, offer benefits that defray the cost of additional higher education for your own employees.
  • Set Clear Objectives – Create measurable goals for what you’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to recruit more Gen Z talent? Hoping to develop thought leadership? Or perhaps your focus is on retaining your existing employees. Regardless, make sure to develop a program that tracks to your objectives.
  • Push The Envelope – The concept of companies tackling the student debt issue is still in its early stages, but it’s important to differentiate and look for the white space while it is available. This is especially true for companies who want to be leaders in this arena. So think boldly – identify something new and different that will help attract and retain talent, as well as position you as an innovator. Maybe it is using a tech innovation, or a private-public partnership with an NGO. However you decide to act, the larger the differentiator, the more likely you are to achieve your objectives and help attract attention to the issue at hand.

I consider myself fortunate. My parents financed the bulk of my college costs; others aren’t so fortunate. Upon graduation, they face massive debt that can take years or decades to overcome. It’s daunting and puts immense stress on young adults who should be enjoying the next phase of their adult lives. I hope for the sake of my eldest child who will be off to college in just five years, or the 20.4 million young people in this country who are starting their college careers this month, that more companies begin to feel an imperative to step up and speak out on this topic in a strategic way that pushes both their businesses and our society toward affordable higher-education.

*Denotes Cone client