College Confidence: 5 Things to Know About How Families Feel About Paying for College

Financial Literacy

More than 81% of college-bound students view a degree as their ticket to better jobs and opportunities in the future. Yet, nearly half of students and families feel stressed when thinking about how to plan and pay for higher education, according to Sallie Mae® and Ipsos’ recent College Confidence: What America Knows About Paying for College report.

Navigating through scholarships, grants, loans, and other financial aid can feel overwhelming—especially for first-generation college students but it doesn’t need to be. That said, those conversations about how to pay for college should start early.  Sallie Mae® provides students and families with free tools and resources to help them make informed decisions about their higher education.

Here are five findings from the report you should know:

1. Federal Student Loan Options Can be Confusing

Almost half of families expect to borrow money to pay for college, but roughly the same number of families don’t know federal loans need to be repaid. Specifically, less than half of college-bound families correctly identified direct subsidized loans (47%), direct unsubsidized loans (46%), and the Parent PLUS loans (41%) as money that needs to be repaid. More than two-thirds of families, however, know that private student loans need to be repaid.

The benefits of understanding loan options can help significantly once it’s time to start paying them back and avoid could families taking out loans without understanding their long-term impact.

2. The Cost of College Drives Decisions

Many families eliminate colleges based on cost – before researching available scholarships, grants, and other financial aid. However, according to the 2022 What America Knows about Paying for College report, an overwhelming percentage of families agree that investing in their student’s future by earning a college degree will create more opportunities, and are willing to stretch financially to make it happen.

Families where the student is the first to attend college, often called first-generation families, are more likely to face additional financial barriers when it comes to accessing and completing their education.

Two-thirds of first-generation households, for example, earn less than $100,000 annually, compared to just 22% of those families with a parent who attended college. Just 35% of first-generation families feel confident about paying for college and, 44% are unaware of resources available to help them plan and pay for college.

For families looking to understand the breakdown of college costs, Sallie Mae® offers a free college planning calculator. It allows students to enter savings, scholarships, grants and loans and see the full cost of attending a school, and helps students identify the right school within their budget and responsibly assess college costs.

3. Understanding Financial Aid Packages Can be Challenging

While families may be generally familiar with financial aid, there’s confusion about individual components of financial aid packages. In fact, nearly four in ten families (37%) are not aware of what information is included in financial aid offers from colleges and universities.

Moreover, 42% agree they need help planning to pay for college, with 43% believing there are too few resources to help pay for education and 40% feeling that the available options are overwhelming.

4. Too Many Families Skip The FAFSA

Although nearly three quarters of families have heard of FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, only 62% plan to submit it.

First-generation families are even less likely to submit the form (32%), even though almost half agree an increase in Pell Grants and need-based financial aid would help them pay for college. Even fewer families—20%—feel equipped to complete the application.

Nearly a third of families believe the FAFSA is a waste of time if parents make “too much” money to qualify for financial assistance. The government bases the need for aid on various factors, so it’s crucial for all families to fill out the application no matter what their financial situation looks like.

Failing to complete the FAFSA can mean students and families could miss out on thousands of dollars in free money like scholarships and grants or federal financial aid. 

5. Confusion Over Availability of Scholarships

Scholarships are available for a wide range students and interests — vegans, left-handers, Pokémon players, and Star Trek fans — but nearly half of families believe scholarships are only for star athletes or those with the best grades.

Unlike loans, scholarships do not have to be paid back, making them a vital tool for making college more affordable and minimizing debt. All students and families can use Sallie Mae’s free scholarship search tool to access hundreds of scholarships. Students enter their interests and hobbies and receive a report of scholarships they may be eligible for, simplifying the search process.

Whether borrowing a federal or private student loan, Sallie Mae® is here to help any and all students and their families confidently navigate the college planning and payment process. Our goal is to set more students up for long-term success.

Our suite of free tools — available to all students and families — is available at