Senior living’s unspoken debt problem – Editors’ Columns


Many people running senior living organizations grew up when $5,000 could cover a year’s tuition and incidentals at a good state university.

As a practical matter, that meant that a decent-paying summer job and some part-time work during the school year could pretty much cover the tab. Throw in some help from the folks, and paying for college was not such a big deal.

These days, it’s a very different story. Good luck finding any in-state public university requiring less than $30,000 per annum. Add $10,000 or more if the campus is beyond the state line. Select a nice private university and the sticker price easily can shoot north of $60,000. Yes, it’s now possible to spend around a quarter million dollars on an undergraduate degree.

For this, we can thank the fine people who have been running our universities for the past three decades or so. Many concluded that raising costs by twice or thrice the rate of inflation was a splendid idea. After all, the customers could always take out easy-access loans, right?

Thanks largely to such stewardship, student loan debt has ballooned to $1.7 trillion. First Republic Bank reports that more than six in 10 college educated adults are still paying off college loans, with an average balance of roughly $40,000.  

Why am I mentioning this? Because such escalating costs are very much on the minds of many senior living employees these days. Moreover, the numbers are only part of the story. Debt anxiety can negatively affect their ability to perform their jobs, as well as their ability to fully enjoy living.

So what should be done?

An obvious answer is to consider new ways to help relieve the financial and mental anguish some of your employees are surely facing.

Perhaps you could set up a bonus or incentive plan that can be used to chip away at the debt balance? Or maybe you could offer to pay off some of the outstanding amount? Or perhaps you can devise a more elegant solution? After all, you are a senior living operator. Being creative is part of your job — or should be.

There is an outside chance that the Biden administration will wipe out such debt as part of a larger infrastructure plan. Of course, the proposal would need to be approved by the same Congress that can’t seem to agree on whether something unusual happened Jan. 6 on Capitol Hill. So as they say, don’t hold your breath.

Regardless, there would seem to be an opportunity here.

Many of your employees sure could use some debt relief. If you happen to be the agent of such assistance, you’d be more than a benevolent soul. You also might be the operator whose recruitment and retention challenges have all but disappeared.

After all, many of the benefitting employees might conclude that you offer a pretty good place to carve out a career. Or that at the very least, they owe you one.



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