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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

When the 401(k) was born 40 years ago, it changed the way Americans left the workforce. Now, some companies are trying to change how we enter it.

Why it matters: Student debt is stopping a huge swath of Americans from entering the middle class, buying homes and starting families. To chip away at the problem, employers are starting to debut assistance programs that experts say could become as ubiquitous as 401(k)s or health care.

Right now only about 4% of companies offer student debt assistance, but, in today's tight labor market, they're finding that the perk attracts young talent.

  • Fidelity Investments was one of the first companies to help pay down employees’ student debt when it started its initiative in 2015. The company offers employees $10,000 over 5 years, paid out monthly.
  • Hewlett-Packard Enterprises is one of the 25 companies that has contracted Fidelity to help implement its program. Fidelity works as a record-keeper for HP employees who are taking company money to pay down debt.
  • Gradifi, which consults other firms on their student debt programs, has helped launch such programs at a range of companies from legacy publisher Penguin Random House to fitness startup Peloton.
  • Aetna, which launched its assistance program in January 2017, also offers employees $10,000 over 5 years. The company gives $5,000 over 5 years to its part-timers.
"Companies will have to find clever ways to fund this. It's going to be as mainstream as a 401(k) benefit."
— Ashwini Srikantiah, vice president for workplace emerging products, Fidelity

By the numbers:

  • About 45 million Americans have student loans to repay. The typical student accrues about $30,000 of debt, but a fifth of them owe more than $100,000, per the National Association of Realtors.
  • An overwhelming majority — 79% — of those who owe money accumulated debt while attending a four-year college.
"The cost of education continues to go up, but the cost of entry into the workforce is still a Bachelor's degree."
— Meera Oliva, executive at Gradifi

The backstory: In the early days of the 401(k), there were just a handful of adopters. Then, when the benefit became essential for luring potential workers away from competing firms, it snowballed.

Ted Benna, who's credited with inventing the 401(k), tells Axios that wide corporate adoption of student debt programs will be tougher because most companies who chose to offer 401(k) benefits already had some sort of retirement savings plan in place for employees. In comparison, student loan repayment is a radical move.

The catch: While it's often big, wealthy corporations that offer help paying back student loans, it's the graduates that choose less lucrative careers, such as in public service or at non-profits, that need these programs the most.

  • Congress offers Hill staffers up to $10,000 for student debt repayment, but interns and part-timers are not eligible and neither are those who have private loans, per CQ Roll Call.

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