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Americans want to cancel student loans — but not all of them

Student debt forgiveness is especially popular among people with student debt. Those without it are more split.

Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Is it a good idea to forgive student debt? The answer is complicated and, ultimately, driven by politics — not only political will but also political popularity.

Some critics have suggested that if President-elect Joe Biden were to unilaterally take action to cancel some or all student loan debt, it would be a disaster for Democrats and cause major backlash from many voters. That’s not the likeliest outcome, based on polls, but it’s not a clear political win either.

A poll from Vox and Data for Progress found that a majority of likely voters support forgiving some student loan debt up to a certain amount and in certain situations, but the popularity of the idea varies among voters based on age and other characteristics.

Two-thirds of voters say they would support canceling $10,000 in student loan debt for every year someone works in national or community service (up to five years). More than half of voters support canceling $50,000 of debt without the service requirement, but the idea is more politically palatable if the program targets debtors making less than $125,000 a year. Only about 4 in 10 likely voters, however, support forgiving all student debt.

Student debt forgiveness, once a fringe idea, has moved into the mainstream, and many Democrats and progressives are calling on Biden to act. Proponents argue that canceling student debt is a way to stimulate the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic — though reasonable minds can disagree about how effective a stimulus it would be — as well as an issue of justice. Black borrowers carry a heavier student debt burden than whites, and people have been encouraged to take on sometimes enormous amounts of debt for an education, even if that debt will be a drag on their economic lives for decades.

But beyond the mechanics of the proposal, it’s obviously a political question. Namely, if Biden goes through with it — which Sens. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren are pushing him to do — and cancels up to $50,000 for every borrower, how will it play?

According to the Vox/Data for Progress polling, 51 percent of likely voters would support Biden canceling up to $50,000 of student loan debt for people making less than $125,000 a year.

When you separate the responses by existing debt levels, it becomes clear that the idea is much more popular among those with student debt than it is among those without it. It’s also more popular with Democrats, women, people younger than 45, and Black voters than with Republicans, men, older voters, and whites. Fifty-one percent of both college-educated and non-college-educated respondents said they would support canceling the debt.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

Other polls have similarly found that canceling some student debt is a moderately popular idea, and it’s pretty well liked among much of the Democratic base — Black voters and middle-class professionals — who helped hand Biden the election.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

If Democrats do go ahead with student debt forgiveness via executive order, they could pair it with an action that would benefit non-college-educated people, such as requiring federal contractors to pay a $15 minimum wage. That would benefit millions of workers. And it’s not clear how many people — other than those it directly impacts — will notice the effects of student debt cancellation.

Proponents of forgiveness say they hope that by taking one big Democratic ask off the table, they can open the door to making progress on other issues related to the affordability of higher education, namely ones that would require congressional action.

“Everybody advocating for student debt cancellation also thinks we should fix the [cost] problem,” said Suzanne Kahn, director of education, jobs, and worker power at the Roosevelt Institute and an advocate for complete cancellation of federal student debt. “The order of the conversation we’re having is a direct result of Covid and the fact that this is a simulative action that Biden can take without Congress.”

Christina Animashaun/Vox

The debate over student debt isn’t going away. Neither is the problem that got us here in the first place.

One reason student debt is now at the forefront of the political conversation is that years of activism helped put it there. Another reason is that it’s a prevalent issue in so many people’s lives.

Some 45 million Americans have student debt. And while households with graduate degrees are the ones with the most education debt, the problem affects people of all races, across incomes and education levels. In fact, some of those in the worst situation when it comes to their student debt are people who started college but didn’t finish. They often struggle to pay off their debt in part because they aren’t getting the income benefit that often comes with a college degree.

“We have lured people into high-cost colleges by offering these student loans … and maybe we should recognize that and at least cancel some of the pain that we have encouraged people to take on,” said Bob Shireman, director of higher education excellence and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Regardless of whether Biden ultimately decides to cancel debt on his own, the problem of the price of higher education and how it’s financed is not going away. Indeed, if he were to cancel all debt tomorrow, there would still be millions of students across the country incurring new debt unless the entire system is overhauled.

“We need a Congress that’s willing to have that conversation,” Shireman said. “We cannot address the broader affordability questions, the broader affordability problem, without Congress and the administration working together.”

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