Candidly picks up student debt relief where new US policies leave off

Student debt relief has been a hot topic for years now, with some big things happening — policy-wise — in the past year: Last summer, the Biden administration announced a plan to cancel up to $20,000 for people holding federal student loans.

Then in December, Congress passed the SECURE ACT 2.0, which created provisions for employers to match student loan payments for those with debt while also adding to retirement accounts. Late in February, the Supreme Court heard arguments related to a lawsuit trying to block Biden’s debt relief program.

There has been a now three-year pause on federal student loan payments due to the global pandemic, and it’s widely known that nearly 47 million student loan borrowers owe around $1.8 trillion.

That, combined with the fact that a majority of Americans don’t have $500 to cover unexpected expenses, has provided an “in” for fintech companies to develop numerous technology approaches to solving the student debt problem.

While some fintech companies have taken the borrower approach, others are looking at it from an employee benefit perspective and attracting interest from venture capital investors. Those include Goodly, Highway Benefits, which announced $3.1 million in seed funding last week, and Candidly, which announced $20.5 million in Series B funding today.

Candidly, previously known as FutureFuel, partners with entities, including employers, financial institutions, retirement and wealth management firms, to embed artificial intelligence-driven student debt and savings optimization products into employee benefits engines.

“We exist to crush debt, and to empower hard-working Americans to go beyond student debt, into wellness, and ultimately wealth,” said Laurel Taylor, founder and CEO of Candidly, in an interview. “More specifically, most who have student debt are focused on achieving freedom from debt at the expense of building wealth. Our mission and our capabilities enable users to make simultaneous progress so that we don't have to choose between our past and our future when it comes to financial health and wellness.”

Altos Ventures led the new financing and was joined by existing investor Cercano Management. In total, Candidly has raised $57 million.

The Series B financing follows a year of record growth in which the company saw 10x revenue growth and a 3,600% increase in payments flowing through the Candidly platform, Taylor said.

Candidly is earmarking some of the new funding to continue operationalize the advancement of the SECURE Act 2.0, which was up for a vote in Congress. The company is developing a suite of tools that allow employers to match employees’ student loan payments, emergency savings contributions and tax-advantaged retirement contributions.

On the borrower side, there are also public service loan forgiveness tools and Federal Forgiveness Finder to better access federal student debt relief programs. Borrowers who have used Candidly's gamified repayment and auto-payment tools were able to send an average of $45 in extra payments to their loans each month, Taylor said.

In addition, 2022 was a big year for the company with regard to distribution partners, including Guild, Empower, Lincoln Financial Group and Vanguard, joining existing partners like UBS and Fiserv, which Taylor said enables Candidly to serve over 35 million Americans.

In February, the company announced that its customer, American Eagle Outfitters, used Candidly to help employees pay down more than $100,000 in student loan debt.

While the company is able to shave years off of debt payments and help a customer no longer miss out on savings and retirement, Candidly can also serve as a gap filler should the Biden administration’s one-time discharge for student debt be allowed to progress, or even if it doesn’t.

“The one-time discharge isn't a painkiller, but it may be a vitamin,” Taylor said. “It helps a little bit, but there's still a big amount of debt to slog through for the average American in our workforce today. The reason we raised this round was to scale our ability to transform financial outcomes for the users that we serve, for the employers that are providing us as a benefit and for the channels that are distributing us.”