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New Survey Provides Insight into Public’s Concerns About College (In)Affordability

The Bipartisan Policy Center recently conducted a survey with Morning Consult on issues in higher education, including student debt forgiveness and free college. The survey’s results suggest widespread concern about college affordability but a lack of consensus on how to best address this challenge.

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Public Opinion on Loan Forgiveness Is Divided

Bold plans to cancel student loan debt receive lots of airtime, but public opinion is split who should qualify—or even if—the federal government should intervene. 67% of adults support some level of student debt relief, with a quarter of those polled (24%) supporting full cancellation and 20% against any loans forgiveness. Republicans are significantly more likely (40%) to oppose the federal government forgiving student debt than Democrats (4%).

When considering a range of options for loan forgiveness, however, stronger support exists (41%) for some sort of loan forgiveness that benefits all borrowers, compared to debt cancellation that only targets low-income borrowers (27%). Unsurprisingly, respondents with student debt are more in favor of forgiving all student debt (48%) than respondents without debt (20%), but public opinion did not vary significantly by education level.

Respondents' Views on Student Debt Forgiveness

Concern for Public Service Borrowers Has Grown

Public servants, such as teachers, first responders, and social workers, occupy roles that often require a college degree but offer only modest wages. Just prior to the pandemic, BPC polled on whether the federal government should help these types of borrowers pay off their loans, with 57% of respondents in favor. More than a year later—after many public servants worked on the front lines during the crisis—support for public service borrowers has grown by seven percentage points, to 64%.

Despite broad approval, Democrats are significantly more likely (82%) to favor providing student loan assistance to public servants than Republicans (45%). Those who are currently enrolled in college—or expect to enroll in the next two years—indicate overwhelming (87%) support for this idea. Across generations, a majority of respondents also responded favorably. Millennials were the most supportive (77%), while only 52% of Baby Boomers agreed public servants should receive student loan support from the federal government.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is an existing program that offers loan forgiveness for public servants after 10 years of loan repayment, but a convoluted application and stringent eligibility requirements have resulted in just 2% of PSLF hopefuls seeing their loans forgiven. Given the strong support for this type of program among the general public, policymakers should consider reforms to PSLF that would enable more public servants to get help paying off their federal student loans.

Free College Faces Stronger Opposition Than Alternative Approaches to Improving Affordability

A majority of respondents (65%) support the federal government giving money to states to provide students with free tuition at public colleges. This high level of support is unsurprising, given that the proposal is often pitched as being “free” (even though in reality taxpayers foot the bill). Groups opposing free public college include a plurality of Republicans (48%) and adults aged 65 and over (46%).

Rather than free tuition, reducing prices by having states and the federal government act together resonated more strongly among respondents. 69% of adults support the federal government providing additional money to states to reduce their tuition, and even more (72%) support the federal government and states acting as financial partners to achieve this goal.

A Majority of Adults Support Promoting Racial Equity Through Higher Education

Over the past year, conversations about race proliferated across the country, including what role higher education should play in advancing racial equity. Our survey found that most adults support both institutions of higher education (68%) and policymakers (58%) working to ensure that higher education promotes racial equity. While Black (74%) and Hispanic (72%) adults were more likely than their white (64%) counterparts to favor institutions of higher education working to support racial equity, each group had similar levels of support for policymakers doing so.

Interestingly, high-income adults and those with a graduate degree are the strongest proponents of promoting racial equity through higher education. Over 72% of respondents with an annual household income greater than $100K and 81% of respondents with graduate degrees support institutions of higher education promoting racial equity. Additionally, 65% of high-income respondents and 74% of respondents with a graduate degree support policymakers working towards this end.

Support for Institutions of Higher Education and Policymakers Working to Ensure Higher Education Promotes Racial Equity

Conclusion

Concerns about the cost of college are top-of-mind for the American public. These survey results indicate room to consider new approaches to improving college affordability. BPC’s Task Force on Higher Education Financing and Student Outcomes endorsed a number of bipartisan recommendations that would achieve these aims, including reforms that would support student loan borrowers in repayment, improve affordability through a flexible block grant, and boost capacity at minority-serving institutions.

Morning Consult surveyed 2,200 adults in early March 2021. The interviews were conducted online and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of adults based on age, educational attainment, gender, race, and region. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of +/- 2%.

Click here for the survey crosstabs.

Click here for the analysis memo.

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