Workforce Trend: Parents Are Risking Their Retirements to Pay for College for Their Children

By Walecia Konrad · March 15, 2024 · 5 minute read

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Workforce Trend: Parents Are Risking Their Retirements to Pay for College for Their Children

When it comes to their kids, many of your employees may be willing to put their retirement on the line.

As HR pros focus on workforce planning, understanding the burden that college costs impose on most employees is a key component for successful financial wellness programs.

Paying for college is a daunting challenge, and even financially savvy parents can become overwhelmed and confused by the college financing process. That’s where employer-sponsored education efforts can help. Employers who understand the following common college financing traps can better plan programs to alleviate the stress of paying for college and improve financial wellness overall.

Trap One: Prioritizing Their Children’s Education Over Their Own Retirement

By now, it’s become a financial wellness mantra: Parents should prioritize their retirement savings before saving for or paying for a child’s college education. After all, the thinking goes, students can borrow for education costs, but parents can’t borrow money to pay for retirement. And if parents don’t properly prepare for retirement, their children may end up supporting them in their later years, jeopardizing their future finances.

But with ever-rising tuition costs and the increasing burden of student debt, it may be harder for your employees to follow that tried-and-true advice. The cost of college has more than doubled over the past four decades — and student loan borrowing has risen along with it. Americans collectively owe more than 1.7 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve .

Trying to ease the burden on their children, your employees may be raiding their future. Among people aged 25 to 80 who are saving for both retirement and future college expenses, 58% say they are delaying retirement, and 41% say they have withdrawn money from their own retirement funds to pay for a child’s (or other relative’s) tuition, according to a July 2023 survey by the Society of Actuaries .

When an employee delays retirement to catch up on missed retirement savings or pay off education loans, it can be costly to an organization. What’s more, if paying for college forces an employee to work longer than they want to, the result may be a less productive, less engaged worker.

Recommended: SoFi Survey: The Future of Financial Well-Being at Work

Trap Two: Mismanaging PLUS loans

Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students (PLUS loans) are underwritten by the federal government and allow families to borrow without the same credit checks and other limits imposed on other types of lending. Because these loans are in a parent’s name, your employees may naturally gravitate to them as a way to help their children avoid debt.

But there are drawbacks. Unlike federal student loans, there are no limits on the amount parents can borrow as long as it doesn’t exceed education costs. To qualify for a PLUS loan, parents need only pass a check for an “adverse event” such as a recent bankruptcy filing or foreclosure. There is no consideration of the borrower’s ability to repay the loan. Given the often astronomical costs of attending a four-year college, your employees may quickly find they have taken on more debt than they can comfortably handle.

In addition, PLUS loan interest rates, set by the government each year, are usually significantly higher than student-held federal loans (8.05% for 2023-2024 versus 5.50%) and sometimes higher than some private college loans.

If parents default or consolidate their PLUS loans, or if they receive a forbearance or a deferment, the interest that continues to accrue is capitalized. That means that principal and payments can become even more unaffordable for employees. In addition, if the loans go into default, the government can garnish wages, Social Security checks, and tax refunds.

Recommended: Preparing for College Resource Guide for Parents

Trap Three: Avoiding College Financing at All Costs

Another common mistake lurks on the opposite side of the spectrum. In an effort to avoid college debt of any kind, parents who have some, but not enough, college savings may decide to forego saving for retirement, dip into retirement savings, or use home equity to pay tuition bills as they come.

Withdrawing 401(k) savings can result in significant penalties, taxes, and, importantly, lost principal and earnings. Cash-out home refinancing can lead to higher and perhaps unaffordable mortgage payments. Even putting retirement savings on hold when the year’s tuition is due can translate into large gaps in savings goals, depending on the number and ages of children attending college.

These are all understandable mistakes. As we saw above, an overreliance on debt to pay college bills can seriously jeopardize financial well-being. But so, too, can dismissing the strategic use of financial aid and loans to finance college costs.

For instance, your employees may neglect filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), figuring that they earn too much to qualify for federal financial aid. According to Sallie Mae’s How America Pays for College 2023 report, 71% of families filed the FAFSA for the 2022-2023 academic year, down from 86% in 2016-2017.

These parents may not realize that without the FAFSA, the student will not be awarded federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, which can be attractive for their low rates and, in the case of subsidized loan, help from the government in paying interest.

More importantly, many schools require students to submit a FAFSA to be eligible for merit-based scholarships and grants, even though these funds are awarded according to the student’s academic record and other achievements, not financial need. Merit-based aid does not have to be repaid and is usually awarded to undergraduates for the full four years.

While too much debt is never smart, a prudent and affordable mix of well-structured student debt can help parents avoid sacrificing retirement savings, home equity, and other long-term savings to pay for college now.

Employer-sponsored college financing education and one-on-one college counseling can help ensure parents understand the complexities of financial aid and student borrowing so they can balance long-term and current financial needs and goals.

The Takeaway

Employers who help parents avoid these common college financing traps may help alleviate what is fast becoming one of the largest sources of financial stress in your workforce.

SoFi at Work can help with student loan repayment platforms, extensive education efforts, plus a lending suite of student, graduate student, MBA, and parent loans. For organizations that are looking to help their employees get ahead on their education financing goals, SoFi at Work also offers a 529 College Savings Program, which can be integrated into any payroll system.

Photo credit: iStock/Orbon Alija

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