Circumstances beyond its control drove Sallie Mae into retail banking, but the venture, once a stopgap, is now the cornerstone of its survival strategy.

Sallie Mae, whose formal name is SLM Corp., recently began offering high-yield savings accounts and certificates of deposit through its branchless Utah-based bank unit. That gives the Reston, Va., company an additional source of funding for its student loans at a time when the capital markets are still struggling to bounce back. And it doesn't plan to stop there.

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