As educational debt continues to mushroom, younger workers often have to choose between paying off their student loans and saving for retirement. Companies are starting to offer student-loan payment benefits, in part to attract and keep workers in a strong economy.

Last week, Abbott, the pharmaceutical and medical products company, announced a new benefit to help its employees pay off their student debt while still building their retirement nest eggs.

The benefit allows employees who contribute at least 2 percent of their pay toward their student loans — as verified periodically by an outside contractor — to receive a 5 percent match in their 401(k) retirement savings plan. Abbott offers the same match to employees who contribute at least 2 percent of their pay to their 401(k).

So, for instance, if an employee is making $70,000 and uses at least $1,400 to pay down student debt, Abbott will contribute $3,500 to the employee’s 401(k) plan, a spokeswoman said.

Financial advisers said a big concern they hear from clients, in particular those who are in their 20s or 30s, is how to manage student debt. So employers that offer a student-loan benefit are likely to attract younger workers, said Michael Kalscheur, a senior financial consultant with Castle Wealth Advisors in Indianapolis.

“Employees need it and value it,” he said.

The number of such employers is small but is expected to increase, according to a 2017 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

About 4 percent of employers offer some sort of student-loan repayment benefit, according to the latest survey from the Society for Human Resource Management.

Companies that help employers provide workplace benefits, like Fidelity Investments, are adding student loan assistance programs to their menus. Typically, employers make a lump-sum, after-tax payment, monthly or annually, toward an employee’s student loans.

What sets Abbott’s program apart, the company said, is that it promotes both paying down student debt and saving for retirement.

Putting off retirement saving can be costly: every decade of delay roughly doubles the amount needed to be saved.

Americans collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loans. Abbott, citing federal statistics, said the average monthly payment for borrowers ages 20 to 30 was $350.

Many of Abbott’s workers have advanced degrees in science, engineering and business.

The company last year hired more than 1,000 people younger than 35 in the United States, the vast majority of whom had college degrees.

Rariety Monford, 26, an engineer in Abbott’s professional-development program, said she was eager to take advantage of the new benefit. Monford, who is from Cincinnati, graduated from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University in 2016.

She said she had chosen the school even though it would cost her more as an out-of-state student.

With about $60,000 in student debt, she makes about $800 a month in loan payments. Paying off the debt, she said, is her No. 1 goal.

Retirement, Monford acknowledged, seems far away, so it’s helpful that her employer is looking ahead for her.


Ann Carrns writes for the New York Times.