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For the past 14 years, Sallie Mae’s How America Pays for College report has surveyed college students and parents of undergraduate students about their attitudes toward higher education and how they are paying for it. The research examines families’ attitudes toward the value of a college education, as well as their key considerations about what school to attend and how to pay for that education.

Key insights


Families paid less for college, but still relied on the same paying strategies as pre-pandemic
Families report paying $26,373 for college in AY 2020–21, a 12% decrease from AY 2019–20, and in line with costs reported two years ago. Despite uncertainty and change faced by many families throughout this academic year, most covered the cost of education in ways similar to those used pre-pandemic.

Scholarships are a key source of free money, but some students never apply
Scholarships were used by more than half of families (56%) and covered 16% of education costs in AY 2020–21. Both the frequency of using scholarships and the percent of cost covered are consistent with last year’s findings.

Families expect to use loans, and more than half make payments while in school
On average, borrowed funds covered 20% of the cost of college in AY 2020–21, a similar proportion to AY 2019–20 (21%). Likewise, the same proportion of families (47%) report using borrowed funds this year as the prior year.

This year, more families report making loan payments while the student is still in school
How America Pays for College 2021 finds that 56% of families who borrowed say they’re making payments while the student is still enrolled—a significant increase from last year’s 46% of families, and 41% of families two years ago.

FAFSA® completion rates continue to decline
Sixty-eight percent of families completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) for AY 2020–21, a decline from the past two years.

More families have a plan to pay for college
Families who made the investment in education believe that a college degree will create opportunities that the student wouldn’t have had otherwise (89%) and lead to higher earnings (81%). A smaller, yet growing, proportion of families—58%—say they value the intellectual and social experience of college regardless of the potential of increased earnings.

While families adapted to online learning, the majority are looking to get back on campus
Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic changed many aspects of college students’ lives. By the end of AY 2020–21, only 11% of families report in-person only learning, with 89% of students taking at least some classes online. That said, 75% of students and families are eager to return to campus in the fall.

Additional resources

How America Pays for College 2021 research report
How America Pays for College 2021 infographic

Join the conversation with #HowAmericaPays

“How America Pays for College 2021” reports the results of online interviews with 985 parents of college students ages 18–24 and 1,000 college students ages 18–24, April 8–May 4, 2021

FAFSA is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid