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Americans are split on Biden’s student loan work, even those with debt, an AP-NORC poll finds

Published: June 11, 2024, 1:31pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — As he campaigns for reelection, President Joe Biden frequently touts his work on student debt, pointing to the millions of people who received cancellation under his watch. Yet relatively few Americans say they’re fans of his work on the issue, even among those who have student loans.

Three in 10 U.S. adults say they approve of how Biden has handled the issue of student loan debt, while 4 in 10 disapprove, according to a new poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The others are neutral or don’t know enough to say.

The outlook wasn’t much better for the Democratic president among those responsible for unpaid student loan debt, either for themselves or for a family member: 36% approve, while 34% disapprove.

The poll reveals a deep divide over the issue of student debt relief even as Biden makes it a campaign priority. The president is pressing ahead with a new cancellation plan while he strives to energize young adults and Black and Hispanic Americans — groups that are more likely to prioritize student loan relief but have flagging approval for the president.

After Biden’s first attempt at widespread student loan cancellation was struck down by the Supreme Court last year, he proposed a more targeted plan offering relief to certain categories of borrowers. The Biden administration has separately erased student debt for about 4 million people through existing programs.

Asher Marshall was rooting for Biden’s first cancellation plan. It would have chipped away at his $52,000 in student loans. But in hindsight, Marshall says it’s clear Biden made a promise he couldn’t deliver without going through Congress.

“He suggested something that sounded good to a lot of individuals in this country, but there was no way for it to move forward from the onset,” said Marshall, 33, of Jacksonville, Illinois.

Marshall, an independent, still plans to vote for Biden as the “lesser of two evils,” but he questions whether cancellation will energize other Black voters, especially since Biden’s latest plan helps fewer borrowers than the first one.

Melissa Mata feels let down by the president. The Houston resident has $14,000 in student loans from a program she never finished, and she could have used the help that Biden promised.

Now she plans to sit out the November election or vote independent.

“They make these promises to get votes, but they don’t deliver. So I think for me, I wouldn’t trust it,” said Mata, 34, a bookkeeper.

Some others say Biden isn’t to blame.

Samantha Kempf, a social worker in Howell, Michigan, has $78,000 in federal student loans from her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Kempf, a Democrat, was upset when Biden’s initial plan failed, but she doesn’t hold it against him.

“It was the Supreme Court that shut him down,” said Kempf, 32. “I don’t blame him for it, because he at least made an attempt to get something approved.”

Americans overall had a dimmer view on the Supreme Court’s handling of the issue, the poll found: 15% approve of its work on the issue and around one-quarter disapprove.

About 4 in 10 adults think it is extremely or very important for the federal government to provide student debt relief. A similar share say it’s not too important or not important at all, with about one-quarter in the middle, saying they believe it’s somewhat important.

Younger adults are more likely to prioritize government action on student debt, with about half under 45 saying it’s extremely or very important, compared to 3 in 10 older adults who said the same.

Political divisions are even wider, with 15% of Republicans saying it’s extremely or very important, compared to 58% of Democrats. The issue has become a rallying point for Republicans, who often say taxpayers shouldn’t get burdened with repaying other people’s college debt.

Neil Wolf, 49, repaid his student loans for two associate degrees, including a $23,000 loan he repaid in the 1990s. No one forces students to take out loans, and taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook to repay them, said Wolf, a Republican.

“We give too much away. You give everything away, nobody appreciates what they have,” said Wolf, of Denton, North Carolina. “Why should I pay for somebody else’s loans?”

Steve Lesyk, a Republican in Gap, Pennsylvania, said he could support cancellation in some cases. It makes sense for people who have racked up big sums of interest or have been paying off loans for decades, he said — two categories targeted in Biden’s new plan.

But in general, he opposes cancellation, saying it doesn’t do anything to prevent students from getting buried in debt in the first place.

“They’re asking people who’ve never had loans to pay back their loans,” said Lesyk, 58, who never had student loans. “This money doesn’t just appear out of the sky, it comes from somewhere, and there’s so many other things that people need right now.”

Biden’s new plan would erase some or all debt for several groups: those with so much accrued interest that they owe more than they originally borrowed, those who have been repaying undergraduate loans for at least 20 years, borrowers who went to low-value college programs that leave graduates with large sums of debt compared to their earnings and those who face other kinds of financial hardship.

None of those categories have support from a majority of Americans, the poll found. Just under half support relief for those who have made on-time payments for 20 years, and 44% support it for people who now owe more on their loan than they originally borrowed. About 4 in 10 support it for those who went to an institution that left borrowers with large amounts of debt compared to their incomes or those facing other forms of financial hardship.

For each category, majorities of Democrats approved forgiveness.

Support was also higher among those who are now repaying student debt compared to those who already paid it off. Almost 7 in 10 current borrowers support relief for people who have older loans, compared to half of Americans who previously paid student loans.

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The highest support among previous loan holders was for those defrauded by their educational institution at 56%.

The poll of 1,309 adults was conducted May 16-21, 2024, using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.