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85% of young Americans want the government to take action on student debt, according to Harvard poll

April 27, 2022, 7:21 PM UTC

One thing that’s clear going into the 2022 midterm elections: The vast majority of 18- to 29-year-olds want the federal government to take some kind of action on student loan debt, according to the Spring 2022 Harvard Youth Poll.

“The economic reality of Gen Z and younger millennials is causing them a great deal of anxiety,” says Maria Alcantara, author and financial coach. “Lawmakers must act now to help these young people get on track.”

But while voters under 30 largely agree something should be done about the student loan burden in the U.S.—an estimated 45 million borrowers owe a collective $1.75 trillion—there isn’t consensus on exactly what that something is. While 85% of young Americans support some form of government action on student loan debt, just 38% are in favor of forgiving the debts completely.

Unsurprisingly, support breaks down along party lines, with 43% of Democrats in favor of forgiving all federal loan debt compared to 13% of Republicans. That said, 38% of Independents favor cancellation for all, and support for the measure has increased 5 percentage points across the board since Harvard’s 2020 poll.

Others prefer a different path: 27% of voters under 30 support the federal government assisting with repayment options, while 21% favor debt cancellation for “those with the most need.” 

“Student loan debt is a huge burden for this age group, and it’s preventing them from achieving their full potential,” says Alcantara.

The student debt cancellation debate

Debt cancellation for all would have repercussions throughout the U.S. economy. Some opponents argue it would incentivize irresponsible borrowing while increasing the national deficit. It could also have unintended consequences such as limiting the availability of student loans, which would make it harder for some people to go to college, says Alcantara.

And cancellation doesn’t address the underlying cause of the student debt crisis: astronomical college tuition prices that rise higher each year. While millions of people with debt would suddenly have hundreds of dollars more in disposable income each month, future borrowers would still be stuck with the same problems when they graduated.

Still, proponents of debt cancellation say the benefits outweigh those considerations. Younger generations, who have been saddled with far more educational debt than previous generations, have reported delaying milestones like having children or buying a home because their student debt is such a burden. The stress it causes on borrowers’ lives can be immense: A 2021 survey by Student Loan Planner found one in 14 borrowers has experienced suicidal ideation due to the stress of their loans.

If student debt was canceled, not only would millions of borrowers no longer have their debts weighing on them, they would be able to spend the hundreds of dollars a month in other parts of the economy. It could also help narrow the country’s racial wealth gap.

Progressive Democrats including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are pushing President Joe Biden to permanently cancel up to $50,000 loan debt for every borrower. Other Democrats want the president to make good on his campaign promise to cancel $10,000 per borrower.

Additional policy proposals for tackling the student loan crisis include waiving interest payments, or collecting payments only when borrowers’ incomes reach a certain level.

So far, Biden has taken a piecemeal approach to cancellation, forgiving debts for some disabled borrowers, some who have been defrauded, and certain public servants. Last week, his administration announced it would change how it counted certain payments for borrowers on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness track and on income-based repayment plans, resulting in tens of thousands reaching forgiveness.

Some reports have indicated the president might be warming to the idea of cancellation. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told several news outlets that Biden said during a meeting on Monday that he is considering different options to forgive an unspecified amount of federal student loan debt. Still, some question whether he has the legal authority to cancel debt broadly, or if that’s an issue that Congress must address through legislation.

Since Biden took office, federal student loan payments have been paused, a continuation of a Trump-era policy launched in spring 2020 to help cash-strapped borrowers during the coronavirus pandemic. The White House extended the pause earlier this month through Aug. 31.

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