Explaining the partisan gap in support for student loan forgiveness

Paul TeasU.S. News elections intern
May 10, 2024, 10:14 PM GMT+0

Despite widespread concern over soaring costs of tuition, Americans are split when it comes to student loan debt cancellation. Opinions on the extent and approach to addressing this issue particularly diverge along party lines. Democrats predominantly advocate for either partial or complete cancellation of student debts, aligning with their broader support for government-led solutions. In contrast, Republicans show considerable restraint, with many opposing any cancellation measures.

Half of Americans are in favor of canceling at least some student debt, with big gaps between what Democrats and Republicans think about the issue. The majority of Democrats support canceling either some (45%), or all student debt (26%). In contrast, only 7% of Republicans favor complete cancellation, while 26% support partial cancellation and 57% oppose any cancellation.

What explains the partisan gap in support for debt cancellation?

The gap in support for student debt cancellation between Democrats and Republicans may stem partly from differing perspectives on the root causes of student debt. Americans who identify with both parties generally agree that colleges and universities are at least a little culpable — at least 90% in each party say they blame the schools a little or a lot. But Democrats are much more inclined to blame federal governments and banks than to blame individual actors such as college students and their parents. Republicans, in contrast, distribute blame more evenly between governments, banks, and students.

Additionally, a significant majority of Republicans (76%) view debt cancellation as unfair to those who have already settled their student loans, a sentiment shared by only 31% of Democrats.

More-targeted debt cancellation plan receives more bipartisan support

The latest White House approach to debt relief gets more support across the board, but big partisan gaps remain. After the Supreme Court overturned President Biden’s initial plan to cancel $10,000 of student debt last year, he introduced a new, more targeted approach to debt cancellation. This latest plan specifically targets Americans demonstrating financial hardship, including low-income earners with high expenses, people with disabilities, and borrowers who have been repaying their loans for over two decades. How well does this new strategy align with public opinion on who deserves student debt forgiveness?

Although differences in opinion between Democrats and Republicans persist, there is notable bipartisan support for forgiving the debts of the groups targeted by Biden’s revised plan. A commanding 92% of Democrats and a majority of 54% of Republicans are in favor of canceling some or all debt for lower-income Americans. Similarly, 90% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans support debt forgiveness for people who have been repaying their loans for at least 20 years. Nevertheless, Republicans are less sure about who student debt cancellation will actually help, and are more likely than Democrats to believe that forgiving student loans will most benefit high-income Americans.

Is support for debt cancellation driven by self-interest?

Americans with outstanding student loans are more supportive of student loan cancellation and favor forgiving larger amounts of debt compared to those who have either repaid their loans or never borrowed. This suggests that self-interest may partly drive support for loan forgiveness.

Americans who took out loans and paid them off have generally the same views on how much debt should be canceled as those who never took out loans in the first place, suggesting that personal need or self-interest might be a more significant factor in shaping attitudes than empathy or past experiences.

But does self-interest explain the partisan divergence in support? Possibly. Democrats are about 10 percentage points more likely than Republicans to have taken out student loans. And among those who did take out loans, Democrats are about 7 points less likely than Republicans to have paid them off. But stronger Democratic support for debt cancellation probably isn’t only because more Democrats have outstanding loans. Large differences in support for debt cancellation between Democrats and Republicans remain even among those who have paid off or never took out loans.

Having a personal stake might also influence the two groups differently. Democrats with outstanding loans are roughly as supportive of cancellation as are Democrats who have paid off their loans: Both groups generally favor at least some forgiveness. Democrats who never took out loans are somewhat less favorable, but still mostly support cancellation. For Republicans, having paid off one’s loans — or never having them at all — is associated with dramatically lower support for loan forgiveness. Overall, while self-interest may play a role in shaping partisan attitudes toward debt cancellation, these attitudes — and how personal experiences influence them — are likely rooted in deeper ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans.

— Taylor Orth contributed to this article



Image: Getty (cogal)