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It's Back To School Time... For Companies As Well As For Students

For me, back to school was one of the most exciting moments of the year. In high school, it was a time to dream about college. In college, it was a time to plan for a career. For some, this fall will be the last back-to-school season, as even with financial aid they cannot afford college. For others, it will be choosing their second, third or fourth option school over their first for financial reasons; or, attending for a fifth, six or seventh year of college due to academic challenges prevalent in under-served communities.

These scenarios have one disturbing component in common: debt. Student loans now amount to more than $1.3 trillion dollars, and more than 70 percent of 2015 college graduates have loans to repay. Many students will incur a massive amount of education-related debt, while others may avoid college altogether in order to sidestep that financial burden. Either choice has the potential to negatively impact these new graduates for the rest of their lives, before they even set foot in the workplace.

There's another disturbing factor in this equation: it's not a level playing field. Black and low-income students borrow more and more often than their white peers: 80 percent of black college students take on debt as compared to 63 percent of whites. They drop out at higher rates than their white peers and are more likely to cite finances as the reason for leaving school. White students also obtain Bachelor's degrees at twice the rate of blacks and three times the rate of Latinos. College graduation rates are less than optimal across all groups, but here again there are significant differences: 60 percent of white students graduate from college within six years, while only 40 percent of black students obtain a degree within this same time period. More years in school. More debt. And sadly, many students misunderstand the implications -- nearly a quarter of all students believe their loans will be forgiven if they graduate.

It's a complex cycle. Educational disparities both result from, and lead to, wealth disparities. Simply put, you need to succeed in order to succeed.

Success is at least, in part, about opportunity. That's why I'm confident about our ability to disrupt this cycle. American businesses have an opportunity -- and I would argue the obligation -- to build on our country's unique tradition of providing access to education by creating new mechanisms to make college affordable. At PwC, we're initiating a student loan pay-down benefit program, which will provide $1,200 a year for up to six years towards the student loan debt of our recent graduate professionals who qualify for the program. Given the time value of money, this benefit could be worth up to $10,000, which covers around one-third of the average student loan. Our student loan pay-down benefit builds on PwC's Earn Your Future program, our signature commitment to advance youth education and financial literacy in the US.

While PwC is among the first to invest in this type of commitment, I believe that other organizations across the county are stepping up with innovative approaches to develop a more financially savvy workforce and to encourage the pursuit of higher education. We need to continue to celebrate these advances, but we also need to make sure we are addressing the larger systematic issues within our educational institutions to solve the essence of the problem.

Back to school for students means learning new concepts and adjusting to change. American businesses are no different. To compete in the global marketplace we need a diverse, highly educated workforce of men and women that can focus on innovation and new technical challenges. We need to make sure today's students can afford the education they'll need to advance this work. And I believe we're up to the challenge. At PwC, we are committed to our Purpose: to build trust in society and solve important problems. Let's engage our efforts so that back to school means full speed ahead for us all.