Most Americans Want Lower Tuition Costs More Than Student Loan Forgiveness: Survey

 February 12, 2020
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You’d have to live under a rock — a rock that doesn’t get internet reception — to avoid the ever-growing political discussion over student loans and the student debt crisis.

With presidential candidates presenting plans to solve the country’s education-debt problem and politicians debating changes to existing rules, we took a look at what average Americans think by surveying 1,210 people online for their views on this issue.

The result showed a clear plurality of those surveyed (47%) believe reducing the cost of higher education is a better solution than awarding forgiveness en masse, with just 22% favoring forgiveness. At the same time, however, 79% of respondents — including 67% of self-identified Republicans — support presidential candidates who back forgiveness.

Here’s a look at what the country thinks about the student loan problem and how to solve it.

Key findings

  • A majority of Americans have at least some support for student loan borrowers. Only a quarter of respondents said they don’t feel bad for indebted borrowers, while 58% blame the debt crisis on either colleges and universities or the government.
  • It’s easier to sympathize when you or someone you know is affected. Nearly a third of all respondents 30% knew someone with a six-figure student loan balance, and for members of Generation Z, 37% were acquainted with someone owing $100,000 or more.
  • Student loan debt should be categorized as a crisis, according to 72% of Americans. And 81% think that the problem poses broad ramifications, and not just for borrowers.
  • With that said, however, nearly 8 in 10 of respondents underestimated the total educational debt owed by Americans.

Americans side with student loan borrowers, perhaps because of personal ties

Given how widespread student debt has become, you might not be surprised to learn that 49% of our respondents told us they currently owe student loans themselves.

But what about truly large debt loads? If there were someone in your life with at least six figures of student debt, would you even know about it? Education debt, after all, is a taboo topic for many borrowers. In fact, 1 of 4 borrowers even keep such information from their partners, according to our “Debt in the Bedroom” survey.

With that in mind, our latest survey results may be a conservative estimate — but according to the data, 30% of respondents said they knew someone with more than $100,000 in student loans, and another 17% weren’t sure if they did.

Knowing a heavily indebted student loan borrower — whether it’s a family member, friend, coworker or yourself — might change your view of the struggle or of how’d you solve it. This may be why only 22% of those surveyed said borrowers were to blame for the student debt crisis.

Instead, nearly 6 in 10 of our respondents instead blamed the nation’s large student debt balance on higher education institutions (31%) and the federal government (27%). Just 13% of our respondents said lenders are the most culpable, even though consumer complaints tend to focus on lenders and/or servicers.

Student loan forgiveness becoming a ballot-box issue

If you look back at the history of student loans, you’re unlikely to find another time when education debt was such a hotly debated topic.

As mentioned above, 8 in 10 respondents said they’d be more likely to support a presidential candidate who calls for mass student loan forgiveness. More than two-thirds of Republican respondents agreed, although loan forgiveness hasn’t been an initiative under the current Republican administration, other than easing the forgiveness process for disabled veterans.

Respondents identifying as Democrats or as independent were even more likely to consider a presidential candidate’s stance on student debt forgiveness before casting their vote, at 90% and 80%, respectively. The findings conform roughly to what borrowers have previously told Student Loan Hero in terms of their views on the upcoming election.

Why has education debt taken such a major role in the current political debate? According to our survey, more than 7 in 10 Americans think the U.S. is facing a full-fledged crisis. At the same time, more than 2 in 5 think the media does not adequately portray the seriousness of it.

However, most of those surveyed were themselves unclear on the scope of the problem. About 78% underestimated the amount of student debt currently owned — which recent data puts at $1.56 trillion for the country as a whole. Only 12% correctly said Americans owe “about $1.5 trillion” in student loans, though 11% overestimated the total as being somewhere near $5 trillion.

More support lower-cost college rather than forgiveness

Plans to add or improve student loan forgiveness programs continue to draw the most headlines. And yet, experts aren’t sure mass forgiveness is feasible. Plus, many no-longer-indebted borrowers have mixed feelings about their peers receiving a free pass.

Our survey respondents also seemed skeptical about how realistic canceling all student loan debt would be, with only 22% pointing to forgiveness as the best solution. Instead, nearly half (47%) of those questioned thought lowering the cost of college tuition would be the most effective fix.

But while plans to lower tuition from some of the presidential candidates (especially from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) have gotten a lot of attention, some of the biggest recent advances are happening at the state government level. In September, for example, New Mexico’s governor announced plans to offer free college to all residents. The pledge, building on New York’s “tuition-free for some” program, would be the first of its kind.

How to lessen your family’s reliance on student loans

You might look at big-picture concepts like student loan forgiveness and free college as pie in the sky. Even a slice would seem to be out of reach.

Let’s focus instead on what is under consumers’ control. Look again to our survey results: In smaller minorities, survey respondents pointed to student debt solutions that don’t require action from the government:

  • Focus on alternatives to college: 9%
  • Strengthen borrowers’ financial literacy: 6%

If you or your child are college-bound, keep these fixes in mind.

For instance, a partial alternative to that pricey private university could be spending the first two years of your studies at a far more affordable community college. (That’s just one of many ways to pay less for a four-year degree.) Another option is to skip traditional college altogether and pursue your career path at a trade school, entering the job market faster.

Don’t wait on the Federal Student Aid office to improve the way it educates borrowers. Instead, utilize the free content and tools available on reputable sites like this one, empowering yourself with knowledge of the financial aid process. This way, you’ll be less likely to be mired in the student loan crisis yourself.

And if you have student loans already, make sure to be aware of options to save money on repayment, including student loan forgiveness and (especially for private loans) refinancing.