Breaking the Cycle of Education Debt for Frontline Employees

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Elizabeth Heaton is vice president of educational counseling for College Coach, and a former admissions officer.

One of the most heartening recent developments in HR is the focus on frontlines, specifically education benefits helping workers realize long-held dreams of earning college degrees -- many at zero cost to the employee. 

The strategy is twofold; appeal to a worker segment in increasingly short supply, and support professional and financial goals that lead to more solid futures. “Education is a powerful vehicle to help employees advance their career,” said one of our clients. “If, five to 10 years down the road, our employees are still only earning $16 an hour, we’ve failed.” 

But if the goal is really to improve financial wellness, it will take more than just degrees for employees. To really help alter the financial futures for these people, benefits need to help them pursue education for their children, too.  

The Origins of College Debt

To understand why, you need only look at how the college search typically works. The “right” school is seen by families as a mandate. So most work backwards, choosing the school first, and then cobbling together whatever resources they can find to pay for it. “With so much at stake,” wrote Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist who studied family behavior around college, “parents and children prioritize the ‘right’ school —no matter what it takes.”  

What it usually takes is borrowing – a lot. And education borrowing is unique. Unlike home or car ownership, there are no mortgage brokers telling you what you can afford or car financers giving you a cap. So people borrow to the hilt, hoping to secure financial futures. But it often doesn’t work that way. Instead you have stories of people graduating with debt so onerous it becomes the dead weight that sinks futures, rather than the buoy that lifts them. And the ripples last generations. Zaloom’s conclusion is eye popping. Paying for a child’s education, she wrote in the New York Times, “has fundamentally changed the experience of being middle class in this country.”

Decisions That Will Play Out for Decades

Public school guidance counselors simply don’t have the time to meaningfully alter that cycle; they’re not only outnumbered (450 students to one, say some estimates), their jobs have shifted, newly relied upon by today’s beleaguered students for much-needed emotional and social support. The evolution, reports the Boston Globe in an article titled, “My guidance counselor didn’t do any of this,” leaves little room for admissions. One student blamed the single “yes” among her 10 applications on the shortage of time with her counselor. “I did not know anything about college,’’ she told the Globe.

Which is why admissions advice offered from the job (for free) can have so much impact – filling the knowledge gaps for people who desperately need it; bringing finances into the discussion. We’ve seen families save thousands just by shopping smarter – picking the school for the price rather than the mascot. We’ve helped others graduate nearly debt free by reminding them that “safety school” is not a last resort, but a place where students’ achievements can often translate to big scholarships. We’ve helped people make sure they know – from the start -- how they’re going to pay for college all four years so they can avoid the (all-too-common) worst-case scenarios: where students drop out halfway through, leaving campus with a pile of debt, and no degree. 

The goal is to change the cycle; to help people see beyond the big brand mascot; to highlight great education options that will result in little – or even no – debt; to help people understand what they’re in for (in actual numbers) before signing on the dotted line.

It’s why, in the frontline futures equation, children have to be part of the benefits discussion. 

And why financing adult degrees alone will only get you halfway there.

Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
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