New Sallie Mae credit cards for students and recent grads: Are they worth it?

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Student loan servicer Sallie Mae® has officially released three new credit cards to the public. The cards, which are processed on the Mastercard network, aim to both promote and reward financial responsibility among college students and recent graduates.

“Our new credit cards, co-created and developed with students, parents, and recent graduates, offer simplicity and provide the right benefits at the right time, both during and after college,” said Donna Vieira, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Sallie Mae, in the press release.

A look at the card offerings

The three cards — Sallie Mae Ignite℠, Sallie Mae Accelerate℠ and Sallie Mae Evolve℠ — all offer cash back rewards, each with a different selling point.

  • With the Ignite card, you’ll earn 1 percent cash back on all purchases, including the opportunity to earn a 25 percent bonus on your rewards after making six on-time payments in a row.
  • The Accelerate card is focused on rewarding recent grads for paying off student loans. You’ll receive 1.25 percent cash back on every purchase and a 25 percent bonus on rewards earned and used to pay your student loans (federal or private).
  • Lastly, the Evolve card works with you to earn an automatic bonus on the purchase categories you spend the most in. Rather than rotating categories, the card offers 1.25 percent cash back on all purchases and a 25 percent bonus each month on your top two purchase categories — no activation required.

Each card offers no annual fee and a standard variable APR of 14.99 percent to 24.99 percent. Both the Accelerate and Evolve provide a 12-month zero percent introductory APR period for purchases; the Ignite card’s offer is 6 months shorter. Keep in mind the standard variable APR applies after the intro offers expire.

Perhaps the most enticing aspect of the cards is that by owning either the Ignite or Accelerate, you’ll automatically earn one entry to win $10,000 toward student loan payments. There are 12 monthly entry periods in total and you can enter the following months by sharing on social.

What this means for you

The Sallie Mae cards are meant for college students and recent grads looking to earn rewards (and even pay off their loans), but don’t get too caught up in the added perks.

“These cards are decent, but you can do better,” says Ted Rossman, credit card analyst at Bankrate.

Instead, Rossman suggests the Apple Card or Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card for current students or recent grads looking to learn cash back rewards. Both are fee-friendly, meaning no annual fees, late fees or foreign transaction fees, and ultimately offer higher rewards potential. (The Ignite, Accelerate and Evolve cards all charge 3 percent foreign transaction fees and late and return payment fees of up to $39 each.)

“Apple Card is easier to get than most rewards cards,” says Rossman. It offers 3 percent cash back on Apple purchases, 2 percent on purchases made with Apple Pay and 1 percent on purchases made with the physical card.

As for the Petal 2 card, you’ll get a flat 1 percent cash back on eligible purchases, which boosts to 1.25 percent after making six on-time monthly payments and 1.5 percent after 12 on-time monthly payments.

“[The Petal 2 card] is specifically marketed at people who are new to credit, and because they practice cash-flow underwriting, you can get approved even without an amazing credit score,” says Rossman.

The bottom line

As far as student loan-specific rewards incentives go, the Sallie Mae cards are the first of their kind — but that doesn’t mean they’re the best choice for your wallet.

“Just make sure to shop around. Don’t blindly sign up for one of these just because you have an existing business relationship with Sallie Mae,” says Rossman.