Student loan forgiveness divides Americans more by party and age than by education

President Joe Biden announced last month that he was weighing options to address his campaign pledge to ease student debt burdens, including a plan that would limit the relief to $10,000 per person and exclude wealthier borrowers. The Biden administration has previously canceled more than $18.5 billion of student debt through existing forgiveness programs, in addition to issuing several extensions of the pandemic-era moratorium on student loan payments.
About half of Americans, 49%, think the US government is doing too little to address student loan debt, according to a CNN Poll conducted by SSRS in late April and May, with 24% saying that the government is doing too much, and the remainder that the current approach is about right. For comparison, 81% say the government is taking too little action on inflation.

A majority of Democrats (56%) — and an even wider majority of self-described liberals (69%) — say the government is doing too little on student loan debt, according to the CNN poll, while only a third of Republicans and self-described conservatives alike say the same. Seventy percent of adults younger than 35 say the government is doing too little, a figure that drops to 50% among those in the 35-49 age bracket, and 35% among those age 50 or older.

There are also racial and income-based divides: Six in 10 of people of color say the government is doing too little, compared with 42% of White Americans who say the same. And 57% of those in households making less than $50,000 annually want to see more government action, compared with 42% in higher-earning households.

By contrast, however, there’s little divide between college graduates and those without a degree: 50% of Americans without a college degree say the government should take more action on student loan debt, as do 47% of college graduates.

While younger adults are generally supportive of government action on student debt, their views also diverge along political and demographic lines. In a March poll of Americans ages 18-29, conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, 38% of young adults said that the government should cancel student loan debt for everyone, 21% that debt should be canceled “only for those most in need,” 27% that the government should not cancel debts but instead help with repayment options, and 13% that there should be no change in government policy on the issue.

Roughly half of young Democrats (48%) said the government should cancel all student loan debt, with 77% saying the government should cancel debt for at least some Americans; among young Republicans, 20% favored canceling all student loan debt, and 35% thought at least some debts should be canceled.

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Half of young Black Americans supported fully canceling student loan debts, compared with 43% of Hispanic young adults, 38% of young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and 33% of White young adults. There was again relatively little difference between current college students (41% of whom said all student loan debt should be canceled), college graduates (39% of whom said that) and those who neither held a degree nor were currently enrolled (36%).

The Harvard poll also found that when asked about the national issue that concerned them the most, just 1% of young adults mentioned education costs or student debt — 19%, by contrast, mentioned inflation or the economy as a whole.

While surveys provide a fairly clear picture on how Americans divide over student loan policy, they’re less consistent in the level of overall support they find for government action. There’s a good reason for that — the way pollsters present the issue also varies widely. Some surveys, for instance, ask about support or opposition for a specific plan, while others lay out a range of possible options.

In an Axios-Ipsos poll from August, for instance, 55% of Americans said they supported “forgiving, or erasing, all federal student loan debt,” while 44% were opposed. But in a March 2021 poll from Grinnell College that asked Americans to pick between three policies, just 27% chose forgiving student loans for anyone with student debt, while 39% favored forgiving student loans “only for those in need” and 29% said such loans shouldn’t be forgiven at all.

Taken together, those numbers suggest that, with the scale and scope of government action on student loan debt still unknown, public opinion toward a hypothetical response remains equally inchoate. There’s a well of potential support for some sort of action on student debt, but less consensus around precisely what form that should take — and significant room for Americans to change their mind, depending both on the details of any policy, and the politics of its rollout.

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