When Laurel Taylor launched FutureFuel in 2016, she had one goal in mind: Put a dent in the $US1.47 trillion in student debt (and growing) held across the United States.
FutureFuel helps companies offer student debt repayment as an employee benefit. Among its customers are Mashable and Affinity.
“Users today prefer student debt repayment over food, foosball, and a 401(k),” said Taylor, who previously led an ad sales team at Google. “What we see, in general, is that 50% of employees opt-out of their 401(k). They’re saying, ‘My student debt is crushing. I have to pay down my debt first.'”
FutureFuel makes its money in three ways: It charges transaction fees to companies that use its software to manage employee benefits; it charges consulting fees to help companies figure out which benefits best suit their workforces; and it takes a cut off the top of any loans that are refinanced within its app.
Taylor’s convinced employees want student loan repayment as a benefit, but employers have been slow to jump on the bandwagon. Only about 4% of employers offer student loan repayment.
Still, there are a growing number of competitors, including banks and startups, who share Taylor’s belief and are helping companies offer student loan repayment as a benefit. Last week, Fidelity announced its own loan repayment benefit service, which it plans to test out with corporate customers at the end of the year.
Fidelity got the idea to offer a student loan repayment service as a product for other companies after offering the benefit internally. The company offers its own employees $US2,000 annually to pay down their student loan debt, with a lifetime maximum of $US10,000. Around 6,000 Fidelity employees have signed up for the benefit since the brokerage company first made it available in January 2016, a company representative said.
The company launched the program after hearing from employees that they were delaying buying homes, having kids, and other major life events because of their student debt, the representative said.
“As a financial services firm, this was really concerning to Fidelity,” the representative said.
First Republic Bank started offering a similar product in December 2016, when it acquired Gradifi, a startup that launched two years earlier. As of last month, Gradifi had 170 US clients, including PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Penguin Random House, and AEW Capital Management.
Before the acquisition, First Republic Bank had been using Gradifi to offer its own employees student loan repayment as a benefit. First Republic CFO Michael Roffler told the San Francisco Chronicle that, after the acquisition, it increased the amounts it offers workers to pay down their student debts. It now gives employees in their second year with the comapny up to $US150 per month. It gives longer-tenured employees $US200 per month until their debt is repaid.
While employees benefit directly from the relief, employers get something out of it as well, FutureFuel’s Taylor said.
“It creates stickiness,” Taylor said, citing a study from the education non-profit American Student Assistance, which found that 86% of employees aged 22 to 33 would stay in a job for five years if their employer helped pay down their student loans.
“Our system is broken. Education benefits our entire country but it also benefits corporate,” Taylor said. “This benefit gives employees an opportunity to differential their brands, but also to contribute to a funnel of talent and give people a reason to persist in their jobs.”