Survey Finds Most Young Americans Want Student Debt Canceled

Survey Finds Most Young Americans Want Student Debt Canceled
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By Anne Dennon

Published on February 10, 2021

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According to a new national survey from BestColleges, almost 4 in 10 Americans believe federal student loan debt should be canceled. With proposals for debt forgiveness and free college gaining traction in the U.S., just 29% believe this debt should not be canceled.

Still, opinions on canceling the federal student debt — which makes up about 92% of the country's $1.6 trillion total student debt — vary widely. The new survey found strong correlations between responses and respondents' age, loan history, race, and education level.

Support of federal student loan cancellation is highest among younger generations and individuals who currently have or have ever had student loans. Meanwhile, older generations and those who have already paid off their loans are most likely to say the debt should not be forgiven.

Conducted through YouGov, the BestColleges survey consisted of 2,433 respondents from around the country and from a variety of demographic groups to constitute a nationally representative sample. Nineteen percent of respondents have, or had received, student loans; 12% still have student loans.

While the debate on the potential benefits and pitfalls of student loan forgiveness rages on, many borrowers report that student loan debt holds them back from pursuing opportunities, starting families, and buying homes. Students of color are most likely to report being held back by education debt.

Older Generations Don't Support Student Debt Cancellation

Almost half (48%) of millennials and 40% of Gen Xers believe federal student loans should be forgiven, whereas Gen Zers are the most likely to feel unsure (40%). By contrast, 39% of baby boomers and 53% of the silent generation believe student debt should not be canceled.

One reason for these differences in opinion could be the rising cost of college over time. Higher education was more affordable when older generations attended, making it feasible for students to work their way through college. Since 1987, the cost of college has increased over 160% while minimum wage has risen at a markedly slower pace or even stagnated.

The costs associated with other adult milestones, such as buying a first house, have also risen dramatically over the decades. In the BestColleges survey, older generations were much more likely to say they hadn't had to cancel or postpone any life events due to student loans.

Student Loan History Greatly Impacts Debt Perspective

Over 60% of individuals who took out any kind of student loan, public or private, believe student loan debt should be canceled. The rate of agreement goes up even higher among individuals who actively hold loans: Nearly three-fourths (72%) of indebted students want federal student loan debt to be wiped out.

The promise of college lures students to sign up for hefty loans, but many suffer financially as a result. Nearly 40% of students with active loans have not been able to pay off other debts or save for retirement. Sixty percent of students who ever took out loans reported that they had not been able to do something due to their loan payments.

Current proposals for federal student debt relief would not benefit past student borrowers who already repaid their loans. Respondents who have paid off their debt are the most likely to say federal student loan debt should not be forgiven, at 43%.

People of Color More Likely to Support Debt Cancellation

Over half of Black respondents (53%) believe that federal student loan debt should be canceled — 16% more than white respondents. White respondents were fairly evenly divided over federal student loan forgiveness — 37% said it should be canceled, 35% said it should not be, and the rest weren't sure.

Hispanic respondents, while more likely than white respondents to support federal debt forgiveness, were the least likely overall to be for or against such proposals. Over 40% of Hispanic respondents said they weren't sure whether the debt should be erased or not.

The survey also found that people of color are 6-8% more likely than their white counterparts to postpone certain life events — such as buying a house or a car — due to loan debt. White students are significantly more likely to say student loans have not impacted their lives (44% vs. 31%).

Debt Cancellation Support Increases With Education Level

How much education people have also appears to influence whether they believe student loans should be forgiven. Nearly half (45%) of graduate degree-holders and 43% of four-year degree-holders said federal debt should be canceled, while just 33% of respondents with a high school diploma or less felt the same.

Unsurprisingly, respondents with a high school diploma or less are most likely to feel ambivalent about student loan cancellation. Meanwhile, those with some college education or a two-year degree are the least likely to say that student debt should not be canceled. Without a four-year degree, these students may be saddled with debt without the same income boost granted by a bachelor's degree.

Individuals with the highest education levels — the group most likely to still have student loans — were also the most likely to support federal debt forgiveness, though they are the least likely to report negative effects from their loans. About half (49%) of borrowers with graduate degrees did not feel that paying off their student loans had affected their ability to buy a home, change jobs, or go on vacation.

What Debt Cancellation Would Mean for Student Borrowers

While educators and economists continue to debate whether the government should wipe out college debt, it's clear that many Americans believe in the promise of student debt cancellation, particularly those who came of age during the ongoing college affordability crisis.

"Student debt relief could put students and graduates on more solid financial footing earlier than they anticipated, making a positive impact on their economic futures," said Melissa Venable, Ph.D., a college instructor and education advisor for BestColleges.

Education debt stays with students for a long time. Most respondents who took out student loans still carry them today (63%), and just 7% have completely paid theirs off. Of the respondents who still have loans, 57% are over the age of 35, and 12% are over 55.

Canceling student loan debt could allow individuals who've been bogged down by education debt to explore new opportunities and accomplish milestones. Nearly one-third of respondents who have taken out student loans say the loan payments have prevented them from saving for retirement (32%) and paying off other debts (31%). Buying a house and going on vacation are also high on borrowers' list of postponed events.

Education Debt Hinders Millennials More Than Baby Boomers

Baby boomers (currently ages 56-74) are far less likely to say that student loans forced them to postpone big life events, such as buying a house. Over one-third of millennials (currently ages 24-39) report having to push back buying a house (35%), paying off other debts (37%), and going back to school (36%) due to student loan debt.

Meanwhile, less than 10% of baby boomers say that loans impacted their ability to buy a home. Additionally, just one-quarter delayed saving for retirement as a result of education debt.

Baby boomers were twice as likely as millennials to say that student debt had not impacted their life plans at all (61% vs. 33%). Even if education debt didn't hinder baby boomers from growing their families and making career moves, it could delay their retirement. Millennials carry more of the country's student debt as a whole, but the debt among senior borrowers — many of whom took out loans for their children and grandchildren — is rising the fastest.


Methodology

BestColleges.com commissioned YouGov PLC to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov PLC. The total sample size was 2,433 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken December 9-11, 2020. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults (aged 18+).


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