Three Ways to Reduce Student Loan Debt

Accountability

Each year, the amount of student loan debt held by Americans grows. It reached a record-breaking high in 2021 at $1.7 trillion, more than four times its 2005-level of $391 billion

The vast majority — 93% — of this debt is from federal loans. Meaning, less than $1 out of every $10 of student loan debt is a private loan. Without significant changes to the federal student loan program, the debt cycle will continue for students and families.

Here are three policy changes the federal government could enact to reform the student loan system and support students and families who need financial assistance:

1. Meaningfully Increase Pell Grants

Pell Grants provide need-based financial assistance to low-income students to help pay tuition, fees, room and board and other expenses. Since grant funding doesn’t need to be repaid —it’s essentially free money — distributing more funds through the Pell Grant would likely mean these students would take on fewer loans. 

Critically, Pell Grants also ensure that the aid goes to the students who need it most, helping to increase access and make the college funding system more equitable.

2. Simplify the FAFSA®

Seven in 10 (70%) families reported completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) for academic year 2021-22, but three-quarters were unaware the FAFSA® is available starting in October, potentially leaving thousands in first-come, first-served free money on the table, according to “How America Pays for College 2022,” the annual study from Sallie Mae® and Ipsos.

The FAFSA® is the gateway to accessing more than $112 billion in grants, scholarships, and federal financial aid for higher education and states and colleges rely on information from the FAFSA® to determine need-based aid. Six years ago, the Department of Education moved the FAFSA® application start date from Jan. 1 to Oct. 1 to give families more time to complete it and better understand their financial aid eligibility earlier in the college application process. Despite those efforts, 75% of families are still unaware of the Oct. 1 open date, and only a little over half of families (54%) know all students are eligible to submit the FAFSA®. Many families also bypass the FAFSA because they don’t think they’d qualify for aid or find the application to complicated.

Lawmakers recently passed a bill that would simplify the form, but more is needed, including better informing students and families about deadlines to submit the form and debunking the perception that income is the only factor the government uses to decide if a student qualifies for federal financial aid.

3. Increase Loan Transparency

Federal student loans are subjected to less rigorous disclosure requirements than private student loans.  The federal borrowing process could be improved to more clearly inform students and families about their specific borrowing plans.

Sallie Mae, a private lender, offers a variety of tools to ensure responsible lending — including a scholarship search tool and a planning calculator — to help limit the debt students need to take on.