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U.S. student loan debt has climbed to $1.5 trillion, saddling 44 million Americans with some form of college debt, 29% of the working population, according to a new report from Guardian Life Insurance Co.

Sixty-nine percent of working adults with college debt said their finances were the main source of their stress, compared with 43% of those without college debt.

Fewer study participants than two years ago reported that they were making good progress toward paying off their student loans or saving for their children’s higher education. Thirty-one percent felt they were falling behind in meeting these and other financial goals: replacing income if sick or injured and saving for retirement.

As a consequence, seven in 10 parents said they planned to use some retirement savings and investments to pay for their children’s college education, putting their own financial wellness at risk.

It has been widely noted that millennials are the generation most widely affected by college debt, with 75% carrying some form of loan debt. However, the Guardian study found that baby boomers 60 or older were the fastest-growing category of student-loan debtors, and were most likely to feel that college-related debt significantly impeded them in meeting their financial goals.

Boomers’ loan balances surged by more than 70% in the past five years — the largest increase of any demographic group, Guardian reported, citing AARP research. It said more retirees were seeing their Social Security payments garnished, chiefly to pay for student loans they had taken out for their children.

According to the report, U.S. Department of Education data indicated that at the end of September, 1.8 million borrowers age 62 and older owed $62.5 billion in federal student loan debt and those in the 50-61 age group owed $213.6 billion.

The report’s findings were part of Guardian’s sixth annual workplace benefits study, which was fielded in spring 2018 and consisted of two online surveys: one among 1,700 employee benefits decision-makers, the other among 1,800 employees 22 or older, who worked full time for a company with at least five employees.

College Education Benefits

Guardian reported that more employers today are taking notice of the student loan crisis and examining how this financial obligation is affecting employee engagement and productivity.

Seven in 10 employers in the study said improving their workers’ financial wellness was a top benefits objective, 15% more than in 2015. Yet, less than 10% of employers offered college savings or debt-related benefits plans.

Ninety-two percent of workers in the survey said they would take advantage of an employer match for student loan repayments, similar to a 401(k) plan.

Guardian noted that a diverse number of benefits are on the rise to help employees either pay down college debt or help save, such as student loan repayment plans, college tuition rewards, debt management resources and access to financial advisors.

In addition, several bills pending in Congress could extend Section 127, which gives more favorable tax treatment to tuition assistance programs and student loan repayment plans.

“A majority of Americans rely on the workplace for financial security and addressing college debt is one area of focus that is gaining momentum as a viable workplace benefit,” Marc Costantini, Guardian executive vice president for commercial and government markets, said in a statement.

“There is a growing interest among employers to differentiate themselves to attract and retain younger talent, and this workplace benefit can help make a positive difference in improving financial wellness among employees.”

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