Americans believe that student loans can help open doors to better careers and rising incomes, according to a new survey, and most agree that it is reasonable to borrow to pay for higher education, given the benefits of a college degree. But they are also concerned about people’s ability to easily repay their loans—and the impact that has on the economy.
Americans say that borrowers should do more to prioritize repayment of their loans. But, importantly, the survey results also show that they support government action to make it easier for people to repay.
The national poll, conducted by the opinion and market research company SSRS for The Pew Charitable Trusts, finds that:
Close to 9 in 10 (89 percent) believe that many borrowers have a hard time paying back their student loans. The vast majority agree with this statement, regardless of age, income, race, political party, or whether someone in the household has student debt. And they have reason for concern: The U.S. Department of Education reports that about 20 percent of borrowers, or around 9 million, are currently in default, meaning that they are close to a year past due on their payments. Millions more are behind on their payments, and more than a million loans go into default annually. Making the problems worse, the complex, outdated repayment system often undermines borrowers’ efforts to repay this debt.
A majority (69 percent) agree that when borrowers struggle to pay back their loans, it can negatively affect the economy. Those currently with a student loan are the most likely to support this statement (82 percent), although a majority of those in households without student loan debt (66 percent) also agree. That includes 74 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans. Other surveys indicate that the economy remains a top concern for Americans, and quantitative and qualitative research highlights that many borrowers who struggle to repay student loans are already experiencing other types of financial distress.
Eighty percent agree—58 percent strongly—that the government should make it easier for borrowers to repay student loans. A majority from both major political parties—91 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans—see a role for the government in addressing this problem. Those currently with loans themselves were the most likely to support this statement (90 percent), but more than three-quarters of those in households without student debt also agree (77 percent). In addition, survey participants who are young, of the age to have children in college, low- and middle-income households, and people of color—those who could be most likely to benefit—are among those most likely to support government action.
At the same time, 79 percent agree—46 percent strongly—that borrowers can do more to prioritize repaying their student loans. That includes 85 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of Democrats. Importantly, views on these two questions are not held independently of one another: Among those who believe that borrowers need to do more to prioritize their loans, 83 percent also say that there is a role for government action.
Higher education is among the most effective strategies available to bolster families’ economic security and mobility, and most Americans say that taking out student loans is worth the cost in the long term. However, researchers and experts have found that, to achieve the potential that a post-secondary education offers, the nation needs to address a host of persistent problems, such as the low levels of college completion among some borrowers, earnings and wealth disparities between white households and households of color, and the amount of debt that some students take on.
These data also indicate that Americans support efforts to find solutions that focus on improving the student loan repayment system to ensure that it provides a path to long-term repayment success for financially stressed borrowers—and that it protects taxpayers’ investment in higher education.
This study was conducted for Pew via telephone (landline and cell) by SSRS on its Omnibus survey platform. The SSRS Omnibus is a national, weekly, dual-frame Spanish and English telephone survey. Interviews were conducted Aug. 20-25, 2019, among a sample of 1,011 respondents. The margin of error for all respondents is +/-3.08 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
Sarah Sattelmeyer is a manager and Rich Williams is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on student borrower success.