How Lenders Can Help Borrowers Navigate $1.7 Trillion in Student Loan Debt

RJ Licata, Sr. Director of Marketing

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Total U.S. student loan debt exceeds $1.7 trillion. This number represents a significant burden for millions of Americans — a burden that lenders can help ease through education and support. Lenders that truly listen to the needs of students and families have an opportunity to build authentic relationships along the borrowing journey so they’re top of mind when decisions are made.

How can financial institutions connect with families as they navigate paying for college?

Data suggest growth in borrowers and loan repayment

College enrollments increased in 2023 after declining for 11 years straight. Statista estimates enrollments will continue to grow year-over-year into the next decade, and higher enrollment rates mean more demand for financial assistance.

US College enrollment private vs public graph

Source: Statista

Another good sign for brands — data from Google Trends reveals that fewer borrowers are searching for “student loan forbearance” now than during the pandemic.

Student loan forbearance searches

Source: Google Trends

Another telling data point from Google Trends is the growth in searches for “student loan repayment” over the past two years.

student loan repayment searches

Source: Google Trends

These trends are good news for lenders and servicers because they indicate a growing customer base that is researching student loan repayment.

It’s also an excellent opportunity for student loan companies to provide clarity around repayment after years of confusing news cycles and to help borrowers manage their finances as they begin repaying loans.

Lenders have an opportunity to grow brand recognition

The financial services industry is built on trust, so brand awareness and reputation are crucial. However, when people search for information about student loans, they rarely think about brands. More than 91% of all student loan searches are non-branded.

branded vs. nonbranded loan searches

Source: Keyword volume data via Semrush

Among branded searches, Discover has the strongest awareness among consumers. It appeared in our dataset more than 2.3 million times.

branded student loan searches graph

Source: Keyword volume data via Semrush

However, despite leading in branded searches, Discover exited the student loan business this year, opening the door for other private brands like Sallie Mae, SoFi, or Earnest to establish themselves as not just the lender of choice for higher education but also the prime information source for college finance topics.

The average cost of four years of private college is nearly $200,000, and the average graduate takes 20 years to repay student loan debt. So the choices families make to pay for college have a long-lasting impact. The brands that guide borrowers throughout their journey and show up at each waypoint will be the most remembered.

What can brands learn about their audience by analyzing search data? How can brands earn trust so borrowers choose them?

140 million opportunities to guide financial decisions

Each year there are 140 million annual searches about paying for college, including saving, scholarships, loans, and loan forgiveness.

most searched topics about paying for college chart

Source: Keyword volume data via Semrush

annual searches about paying for college graph

Source: Keyword volume data via Semrush

Paying for college is a long, complex journey that spans decades. Some parents start saving as soon as their child is born. Others wait until the final year of high school to research scholarships and apply for federal and private loans. And some borrowers may refinance their loans several years after graduation.

We’ll focus on those searching for student loans to pay for college here. But lending companies should also publish valuable content about savings and scholarships as those are critical to paying for college.

Who is meeting borrowers’ needs?

Terakeet split 69 million non-branded student loan searches into three categories:

  • Researching
  • Applying
  • Paying
Most searched student loan topics chart

Source: Terakeet

By grouping search data into categories, we can better understand the specific needs of individual audiences:

  • Researchers are just beginning their college journey.
  • Applicants are preparing to borrow.
  • Payers have graduated and are planning their budgets.

Knowing the mindset of each audience and how they search helps you align your marketing with their goals to meet them when they’re actively seeking answers.

Search data can also reveal the competitive landscape by showing us which websites own the most search market share across all student loan topics. Federal Student Aid (​​ is the clear winner with 32% of the total search market share.

Top student loan websites graph

Source: Terakeet

In the student loan space, lenders don’t just compete with each other for consumer attention. They also compete with government websites and publishers like media brands and affiliates. Government websites own 61% of the total search market share across all student loan categories, leaving brands with only 13%.

student loan market share chart

Source: Terakeet

Although brands fell behind government websites, they nearly doubled their collective market share compared to 2023.

Connecting with the researcher segment

Researchers are excited to embark on their college journey, and they’re filled with optimism about their future. But they may also be worried about paying for their dream school.

This segment is looking for general information about student loans, including types of loans and interest rates.

most searched topics for student loans chart

Source: Terakeet

Government websites dominate the “general information” category. However, brands and publishers perform well for “types of student loans” searches. In this category, NerdWallet meets consumers’ needs most often with 23% of the search market share.

Top websites for types of student loans graph

Source: Terakeet

Publishers like Bankrate and NerdWallet were also highly visible in the “interest rates” category, completely shutting out lenders and other brands from the top 10.

Top student loan interest rate topics

Source: Terakeet

FAFSA dominates student loan application searches

There are 43.5 million annual searches for student loan applications, and 97% of them are about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. In other words, brands seeking to connect with student loan applicants will need to publish content primarily about the FAFSA, including when it opens, when it’s due, how to apply, requirements, income limitations, etc.

The other 2.8% of application-related searches are split between how to apply for college loans and which lender to choose.

Student Loan application searches chart

Connecting with the payment category

Borrowers in the payer segment are preparing to repay their loans. This group is likely cost-conscious consumers entering the workforce who may be seeking budgeting advice. They want to know how repayment works, how much they need to pay, and whether they should consolidate or refinance to reduce their monthly payments.

Most searched topics about paying student loans chart

Source: Terakeet

Government websites control 70% of the search market share in the “payment questions” subcategory. However, brands and publishers are winning the most consumer attention for “refinancing” topics. Here, NerdWallet is the clear winner with 25% of the search market share. 

This is also the only category where student loan lenders like Earnest, SoFi, and Laurel Road have a significant presence within the top 10 websites.

Top refinancing topic websites graph

Source: Terakeet

Publishers also perform exceptionally well in the “payment calculators” subcategory, but lending brands are nearly invisible here.

Top websites for student loan calculator topics

Source: Terakeet

To be successful and helpful in the highly competitive student loan industry, brands must deliver exceptional value long before parents and students make decisions — sometimes decades before.

How does NerdWallet manage to outperform trusted government websites and prominent lenders? What does it take to connect with consumers?

NerdWallet’s Student Loan Literacy Strategy

Student loans aren’t just about borrowing money; they’re about investing in possibilities. That’s why SoFi’s mission is to help people realize their ambitions, and Earnest promises “access and affordability for all.”

These brands understand the desire to attend college is fueled by dreams and goals that have been forged over a decade of life experiences.

However, it takes more than a great mission statement to build authentic connections with potential borrowers. Brands must be expert guides that intimately understand their needs and confidently shepherd them through life’s most important financial decisions.

Brands that are present along the winding customer journey will earn awareness, trust, and customer loyalty.

Building student loan literacy with a library of content

NerdWallet doesn’t just have a few blog posts about student loans. The website serves up a buffet of content, including news articles, blog posts, lender reviews, videos, podcasts, FAQs, tools, and guides. Its comprehensive content strategy answers every question borrowers have about paying for college.

Nerdwallet student loan tools image


The editors at NerdWallet are serious about connecting with borrowers to help them make informed decisions. In fact, it’s part of the company’s purpose — “to provide clarity for all of life’s financial decisions.”

Beyond content, NerdWallet invests in credibility to build trust with its readers. Throughout the site, editors showcase their integrity through oversight, transparency, and expertise.

Nerdwallet student loan content example


Helping borrowers understand student loan options

Early in the lending journey, borrowers search for information about the types of loans available to pay for college. These searches include topics like federal vs. private, subsidized vs. unsubsidized, loans for parents with bad credit, and student loans that don’t require a cosigner.

NerdWallet understands borrowers have many needs — and even more questions — so the site covers each of these subjects in depth.

Rather than only publishing long-form articles to answer questions, NerdWallet creates content experiences to match search intent, including simple tables, interactive tools, and comparisons.

Nerdwallet subsidized vs unsubsidized student loan chart


Nerdwallet types of federal student aid example


Best private student loans image example


In addition to using many different formats, NerdWallet also links out to related content using topic clusters. This strategy ensures visitors discover everything they need without returning to Google to ask more questions.

NerdWallet bad credit image example


Saving borrowers money with better rates

Borrowers want to know more than which lender has the lowest rate. They want to know how rising interest rates affect student loans, which types of loans have better rates, and how much interest they’ll pay over time.

NerdWallet published eight pieces of content about various student loan interest topics, which generated more than 100,000 annual visits and captured 10.7% of search market share in this category.

What’s more, NerdWallet understands that interest rates depend on many different variables, so it leverages partnerships to help borrowers compare rates based on their specific situation with an interactive tool.

Compare student loan rates NerdWallet example


The site also offers borrowers a calculator to see how much money they’ll save if they make interest-only payments on loans. Then, it gives them more instructions on how to make these payments.

NerdWallet student loan interest calculator example


For readers who want to keep tabs on current interest rates, NerdWallet curates that information in a convenient table. Not only is this format easy to understand, but it’s updated monthly so it’s always accurate and reliable.

NerdWallet student load interest rate example


Guiding borrowers through refinancing decisions

There are many reasons borrowers might want to refinance their student loans. Perhaps interest rates drop significantly, or they’re earning more and want to shorten the duration of their loans, or maybe they want to consolidate multiple loans into one payment.

NerdWallet currently has 19 unique pieces of content about student loan consolidation and refinancing. In the past 12 months, the site earned more than 280,000 annual visits and captured 25% of the available search market share in this category. Through its content hub, the site explains whether you should refinance or consolidate, how the process works, and how to qualify.

NerdWallet also uses tables to help readers understand topics:

NerdWallet student loan vs refinancing example


NerdWallet built a calculator so readers can easily see how much they might be able to save by refinancing:

Calculate potential savings NerdWallet example


The developers also built interactive tools to help readers find the perfect refinancing lender to fit their unique situations:

NerdWallet loan refinancing partners example


Deliver exceptional value by understanding consumers’ needs

NerdWallet doesn’t just publish articles about student loans to win traffic and generate advertising revenue. The company truly understands each potential point in the customer journey, knows which questions drive action, and answers complex questions as simply as possible.

This is the bar — the gold standard. If lending brands like SoFi and Earnest want to connect with audiences, they must follow this playbook and invest in a reception marketing strategy that informs and empowers borrowers at every stage of the journey.

Terakeet employees sitting on couches

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