Americans support student loan forgiveness, but would rather rein in college costs

As President Biden inches toward an announcement on federal student loan forgiveness, a new NPR/Ipsos poll has found slightly more than half of Americans support what has been reported to be Biden’s likeliest path: forgiving up to $10,000 per person. But an overwhelming majority – including a majority of those with student loans – said the government should prioritize making college more affordable over forgiving existing student loans.

The nationally representative poll of 1,022 Americans was conducted between June 3 and 5, and included an oversample of more than 400 student loan borrowers. The margin of error is +/- 3.3 percentage points for all respondents and +/- 4.8 percentage points for those with student loans.

Here’s what we learned:

There’s general support for some debt cancellation

A majority of the general public (55%) supports forgiving up to $10,000 of a person’s federal student loan debt. But the more generous the relief, the more that support narrows.

Forty-seven percent of all respondents said they support forgiving up to $50,000 in debt, while 41% expressed support for wiping the slate completely clean for all borrowers.

Support for debt relief was, not surprisingly, far higher among borrowers themselves.

One thing that comes through really clearly with this poll is that those closest to the issue, people that currently hold student loan debt, are in a very different position from the American public as a whole,” says Mallory Newall of Ipsos.

Eighty-four percent of borrowers supported $10,000 of relief, 78% backed a jump to $50,000 and still two-thirds (68%) supported forgiving all student loan debt.

Support was far weaker among respondents without student loans: Half supported $10,000 of relief, and just 37% supported full debt cancellation.

The Biden administration has also hinted it might exclude high-income borrowers from relief – those who earn more than $150,000 a year or couples who earn more than $300,000. But when asked about income limits, poll respondents’ views about debt relief didn’t budge.

Don’t leave out grad school borrowers

The Biden administration has floated the possibility of forgiving only undergraduate debt, based on the assumption that a borrower with a graduate degree is in a better position to pay off their debts. But according to this new survey, Americans don’t see a meaningful difference.

Sixty-five percent of all respondents agreed: If the government forgives some student loan debt, it should be for any type of education, whether that’s undergraduate or graduate.

Just 30% said, if the government is going to forgive debt, it should only be for undergraduates.

Erasing old debts vs. fixing the system

In one of the poll’s most unexpected findings, respondents were asked to choose which sentence they agreed with more:

  1. “The government should prioritize making college more affordable for current and future students”
  2. “The government should prioritize forgiving some debt for those with existing student loans”
  3. A whopping 82% said the government’s priority should be making college more affordable for current and future students. Just 16% believed forgiving student debts should take priority.

    What that tells me is that, while student loan forgiveness for some is seen as a good proposal and a short-term fix, where we actually need to go from here is true, systematic change,” Newall says.

    The other surprise is that respondents with student loans felt similarly.

    Fifty-nine percent of respondents with student loans said the government should focus first on fixing the system, while 41% said the government should prioritize debt cancellation.

    “If I had to pick one for me, today: Forgive student loans,” says Briana Ford, 27, of Columbia, S.C. She has roughly $50,000 in student loan debts from college and is now earning a graduate degree.

    Ford says she has tried, at every turn, to pay for her education without relying on loans, but she’s incredibly frustrated with the high cost of college and worries that a generation of students are taking on loans they cannot afford because they see no other viable path into the middle-class.

    That’s why, even though Ford wants Biden to prioritize forgiving the debts of past borrowers, she says the federal government must also do something to help future borrowers.

    I acknowledge that just forgiving student loans without addressing the problem is like draining a tub without turning off the faucet,” Ford says, but “in reality it isn’t an either-or. Political leaders actually can do two things.”

    This could be a key fissure in the student debt debate as President Biden’s most ambitious efforts to remake the system moving forward remain unfulfilled, including his pitches to make community college free and to double the Pell Grant for low-income college students.

    The general public seems to understand what economists have been worrying over for months: That a move to erase student debts without a plan to help future borrowers will simply lead to a new mountain of debt for a new generation of student debtors – and quickly.

    In fact, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that “outstanding debt would return to its current level in 2027 for $10,000 of forgiveness, in 2034 for $50,000 of forgiveness, and in 2039 for full cancellation.”

    What borrowers have done during the student loan payment pause

    Federal student loan payments have been on pause since March 2020. According to the poll, 57% of borrowers have not made a single payment during the pause, and 20% have never made a payment toward their student loans.

    Twins Morgan and Trianna Downing are among the roughly 4 million college students who graduated in spring 2020, directly into the student loan payment freeze. They’ve never known the pressures of regular loan payments. Now, a couple years into the job market and with their sights set on grad school, the twins have very different views of their finances.

    Trianna wants to pay down her undergraduate debt before taking more loans out for grad school.

    “I don’t mind starting to pay mine back now. My hope is to pay them off in less than four to six years, and I’ve made a budget so that I can do that.”

    The poll suggests she’s an unusual case – just a small slice of 18- to 25-year-old respondents said they have made payments during the pause.

    Morgan feels differently. She says she made a few loan payments after graduating, but “after like the second or third payment, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. Why am I making payments?’ “

    She says her undergraduate loans don’t feel real, and she’s waiting to see if President Biden will come through on his campaign promise to cancel at least $10,000 in student debt per person.

    “I was excited to vote for a president that was saying [he] was going to clear [my] debt,” Morgan says.

    In fact, 42% of borrowers in the NPR/Ipsos poll said they haven’t made a payment during the pause because they’re hoping their debts will be forgiven.

    The payment pause gave borrowers room to breathe

    Forty-seven percent of the borrowers NPR and Ipsos surveyed said the payment pause has improved their mental health.

    Newall at Ipsos says that’s evident when you look at how borrowers spent the money they didn’t have to put toward their loans. The top three expenses in that category include essentials like food, rent and gas (51%); paying down other debts (45%); and putting money into savings (44%).

    “It’s clear that it offered people financial freedom in some capacity,” Newall says, “but that freedom is not really to make a big purchase like a house or a car or take a vacation. It really is about a reprieve – a little bit of breathing room in your day to day life.”

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    Transcript :

    A MARTINEZ, HOST:

    One of President Biden’s campaign promises was student debt forgiveness. Now facing the midterms, with his approval numbers slumping, the president is under more pressure to deliver on that promise.

    RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

    A new NPR/Ipsos poll asks Americans which is more important, loan forgiveness or more affordable college in the future?

    MARTINEZ: NPR’s Cory Turner is here to walk us through the results. Cory, let’s start with whether Americans support some kind of student loan forgiveness. What did you find?

    CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Slightly more than half – 55% of all respondents – do support the path Biden is reportedly considering, A, which is forgiving up to $10,000 per person. For more generous relief, like $50,000 or even full cancellation, support dips below a majority. Biden has also floated the idea of excluding top earners, presumably to broaden support for cancellation. But the poll found that using income limits did essentially nothing to budge people’s support for or against debt relief.

    MARTINEZ: What about the borrower side of things? What does the poll tell us specifically about how borrowers are feeling?

    TURNER: A couple of things. You know, unlike nonborrowers in the poll, big majorities of borrowers support all three debt relief options. We also know that student loan payments have been paused for more than two years and that most borrowers have not been repaying their loans during that time. Now, in the poll, we found nearly half of borrowers said this payment pause had improved their mental health. So Ipsos specifically asked borrowers, how have they used the money that they haven’t had to pay? Borrowers mentioned three big buckets. They spent it on essentials like food and gas. They used it to pay down other debts, like credit cards or a car payment, and then they put it in savings. Mallory Newall at Ipsos says the pause gave borrowers a kind of freedom.

    MALLORY NEWALL: But that freedom is not really to make a big purchase like a house or a car or take a vacation. It really is about reprieve, a little bit of breathing room in your day-to-day life.

    MARTINEZ: Now, in the poll, you asked, should the government prioritize forgiving some debt for those with existing student loans or making college more affordable for current and future students? What do they say?

    TURNER: This – for me, it was maybe the most interesting result in the whole poll. Eighty-two percent of all respondents said the government should prioritize making college more affordable for future students over erasing student debts. Even the majority of respondents with student loans, A, 59%, said the government should prioritize helping future students.

    MARTINEZ: Wow, I didn’t expect that. What do you make of that?

    TURNER: I’m not entirely sure. You know, it’s no secret – obviously, college is not affordable for many Americans who take out huge loans because they see it as their only path into the middle class. And forgiving some of those debts would obviously help tens of millions of people. As we’ve said, President Biden is under a lot of pressure to do something ahead of the midterm elections. But it also tells us, you know, erasing debts without changing the system that created them is really fraught. The problem is President Biden’s plans to make college more affordable up to this point haven’t gotten very far. And so this fall, you know, we’re going to see a whole new generation of students who will be taking out new loans with even higher interest rates than they were last year. And in 10 or 15 years, they’ll be the ones pointing back to this moment and asking, what about me?

    MARTINEZ: NPR’s Cory Turner, thanks a lot, Cory.

    TURNER: You’re welcome, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.