Poll shows student debt as an election issue

Voters care deeply about student debt, and a new poll from Protect Borrowers Action, an advocacy group working to fight crushing student debt, suggests the issue could have a significant impact on this year’s presidential election. At a panel discussion March 26, experts discussed just how strongly voters favor student debt relief, which voters care most, and how to get the word out about the student debt relief the Biden administration has already delivered.

From left, John Della Volpe, Persis Yu, Michael Stratford (moderator, from Politico) and Randi Weingarten. Not pictured: Bharat Ramamurti.
From left, John Della Volpe, Persis Yu, Michael Stratford (moderator, from Politico) and Randi Weingarten. Not pictured: Bharat Ramamurti.

At the center of the conversation was the new Protect Borrowers Action poll revealing voter attitudes on student debt relief and the 2024 election. John Della Volpe, founder and CEO of the public opinion and analytics company SocialSphere, director of the Harvard Youth Poll and 2020 Biden-Harris campaign pollster, conducted the poll and described voter views broken down by party, age and race. He also reviewed data showing how student debt might affect the way people vote.

About half of the voters polled said they think canceling student debt is an important issue in the upcoming election; among young people and voters of color, that number goes up to 66 percent. But few are aware of the work President Joe Biden’s administration has already done to eliminate student debt. Since he took office, the Biden administration has canceled a whopping $140 billion in student debt for nearly 4 million Americans.

That’s an important point to consider, since younger people—those who appear to care most about this issue—voted in record numbers in 2020, said Della Volpe. “They were responsible in large part for flipping these battleground states,” and three primary issues motivated them: climate, gun violence and student debt.

Now they can see that their vote made a “tangible difference” by delivering student debt relief through the Biden administration they voted into office. “Government matters,” said Della Volpe. “There’s $140 billion in debt relief because of what young people did. You changed millions of lives.”

Hardship and disillusion

Numbers tell a big part of the story, but the heart of this tale is in the day-to-day experiences of borrowers.

“It’s like a giant anchor pulling you into the depths of the sea,” said one participant, describing the effect of student debt.

“I owe more than what I initially borrowed. It feels very overwhelming.”  

“I’m really angry about the brainwashing that minors go through that they must go to college. … And then I go to college, and it’s the worst financial investment of my life.”

These are just a few of the comments recorded during the poll. Others described how loan relief would make all the difference: It would allow borrowers to put down a deposit on a home, it could “keep people off welfare,” it would provide financial stability.

This is a familiar landscape. We already know the breadth of student debt: It clocks in at $1.7 trillion, with 43 million Americans who owe money on their student loans. The survey showed 27 percent of those polled had student debt themselves or had someone in their households with student debt.

“This debt has weighed down generations of Americans and their families,” said Persis Yu, deputy executive director at Protect Borrowers Action. “It has prevented older Americans from retiring. It has hindered homeownership and entrepreneurship, and it has prevented young folks from starting and growing their families.”

It is patently unfair that young people are burdened with this hardship, said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “We tell kids all the time, go to college, go to college, go to college,” she said, and then when they do as they are directed—particularly if they are the first in their families to go to college and have little family wealth to back them up—we saddle them with unsustainable debt. “What Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are doing is just making it fair and making sure there is real opportunity and that kids have a shot at their dreams.”

Impact on the elections

According to the poll, 70 percent of voters, including 67 percent of those who have already paid off their loans, think the government should take some action to alleviate student debt. Strong majorities—across party affiliation—favor government intervention on student debt.

After the Supreme Court decision to reject Biden’s $20,000 student loan relief plan, the president’s administration has worked through policy channels to find relief anyway—from better use of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and income driven repayment plans to relief for students exploited by for-profit colleges and for those who have been paying for decades. The result for individuals has been huge. “It is truly, genuinely life-changing for folks to have that burden lifted off of their shoulders,” said Yu. Weingarten recalled one individual crying during an event because, at age 60, she had finally gotten student debt relief.

But not everyone has benefited from these policies. The panel agreed that getting the message out that there is more relief coming is important. Building trust in a government that keeps its promises is paramount. Informing the public of what is possible is also crucial. And continuing to work on relief is a big part of the picture.

One possibility for expanding relief is to use language in the existing Higher Education Act to secure relief for borrowers who have experienced “hardship. “The reason that Congress passed the Higher Education Act, which created the federal student loan system … was to create a pathway for financial [and] economic mobility for students who might not otherwise get access to a college education,” said Bharat Ramamurti, former deputy director of the White House National Economic Council. “It’s very much within the spirt of the Higher Education Act as well as good policy to apply very broad relief to student loan borrowers.”

The number of people reached by such relief “has to be big enough to create hope,” said Weingarten—hope for material change and economic stability. Such a plan “should be big and bold,” she said.

Ramamurti agreed: “My hope is and my expectation is that the administration will go pretty big on this.”

[Virginia Myers]