MILWAUKEE — Michelle Loke is one of the lucky ones.

With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the 23-year-old must pay off debt accumulated to keep up with historic increases in the cost of higher education.

But her employer, PricewaterhouseCoopers, is about to shave about 2 1/2 years off her 10-year repayment plan for roughly $30,000 in federal loans between the two degrees.

Starting in July, the international accounting and consulting company will make $100 a month direct-to-lender payments toward student loans on behalf of employees not in management who sign up for the benefit. The maximum benefit is six years, which could add up to $10,000 per employee, including two to three years of interest savings. It counts as taxable income.

“About 80 percent of our workforce at PwC are millennials,” said Michael Fenlon, the company’s global talent leader. Employee benefits evolve in organizations, he said.

“This says: We get it, we’re listening and we understand what’s important to millennials.”

Helping young employees pay down their student loans not only is a perk for recruiting and retaining top talent, it also recognizes that college debt is a burdensome fact of life for millennials, roughly ages 18 to 34.

About one-third of student loan debt is held by borrowers ages 20 to 29, another third by those in their 30s, and a third by those 40 years and older, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York analysis.

BIG SEGMENT OF POPULATION

Businesses – and, in an election year, politicians – increasingly recognize that the millennial generation has surpassed baby boomers (ages 51 to 69) in number, according to the Pew Research Center.

That means the nation’s Michelle Lokes are an influential bloc: While 59 million Americans receive Social Security benefits and roughly 47 million receive Medicare benefits, 43 million carry student loan debt trending around $30,000.

Loke said she pays well above the minimum monthly loan payment because she aims to retire her federal Perkins and Stafford loan debt as quickly as possible. The extra $100 a month added by her employer will make a huge dent, she said, noting about half her loan balance has an interest rate above 6 percent.

When she first heard about the benefit, she said, “I almost thought it was too good to be true.” Loke joined PricewaterhouseCoopers in September.

Many more recent college grads are on their own with student loan payments.

In 2014, seven in 10 students graduating from public and nonprofit colleges carried loan debt, according to the annual Project on Student Debt survey by the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success. The average debt was $28,950.

Nationwide, student loan debt is upward of $1.31 trillion – more than the national debt for credit cards and auto loans, according to the New York Fed.

Borrowers in their 30s generally carry the highest debt balances, and also have the highest default rates.

The vast majority of student debt is federal student loans, which offer lower interest rates (currently 4.29 percent) than private loans.

College costs are among the fastest-rising costs today, and a college education is required to enter many of the highest earning jobs.

PARTNERING WITH STARTUP

PricewaterhouseCoopers is the first company in the country to sign on with the plan administered by Gradifi, a small Boston-based startup. Gradifi designed the benefit to be analogous to a 401(k) retirement savings plan.

The company has relationships with about 200 student loan service providers around the country, and manages all payments and employee loan information, according to Gradifi chief executive Tim DeMello.

Gradifi will charge employers $3 to $5 per month for each employee in the plan, with larger companies paying the lower rate, DeMello said.

DeMello said he expects to roll out student loan repayment plans with about 100 companies across the country between now and July, though he declined to name any of them.

He was amazed when he found out at a meeting of a college board he sits on that many graduates make monthly payments of $500 to $1,500 toward student loan debt. “Some companies have refinanced student loans,” DeMello said. “We’re in the repayment business to pay down the principal faster.”

Fenlon said about half of PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ employees are eligible for the benefit. “We’re a millennial organization, and student debt is a crisis not just for individuals who hold that debt, but also society,” he said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.