Americans Back Federal Help for Student Loan Borrowers Amid Pandemic, Economic Uncertainty

Most in survey say government should assist those struggling to repay

Americans Back Federal Help for Student Loan Borrowers Amid Pandemic, Economic Uncertainty

Most Americans have concerns about borrowers’ ability to repay student loans—and the impact that can have more broadly on the nation’s economy—but they agree that taking out loans for higher education is reasonable, given the benefits of a college degree.

These opinions in a national poll conducted for The Pew Charitable Trusts by the opinion and market research company SRSS likely reflect, in part, the financial and health insecurities faced by many during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn. The financial disruptions caused by both have hit young people, women, low-income families, and communities of color especially hard. Still, the findings are consistent with the results of a similar survey conducted last year, highlighting a belief in the promise of higher education and concerns about the student loan repayment system, regardless of the state of the economy.

Although respondents said that borrowers should do more to prioritize their loans, the survey results also show that they support government action to make it easier for people to repay. Pew research and analysis point to key actions that policymakers can take to provide targeted assistance to those struggling before, during, and after the pandemic.

Among the key findings:

Nearly 9 in 10 (87%) believe that many borrowers have a hard time paying back their student loans. Most respondents agreed with this statement, regardless of age, income, race, political party, or whether someone in the household has student debt. Last year, 89% agreed with this statement.

Americans have reason for concern. In response to the pandemic, Congress and the Trump administration acted earlier this year to help mitigate the serious challenges confronting student loan borrowers by pausing payments and interest charges for most loans and suspending collection efforts for those in default until Dec. 31. But before these pauses, the U.S. Department of Education reported that about 20% of borrowers were in default on their loans. In addition, the complex, outdated repayment system often undermines borrowers’ efforts to repay their debt.

Sixty-one percent agree that when borrowers struggle to pay back their loans, it can negatively affect the economy. This number is fairly consistent across demographic groups and political parties. Other surveys indicate that the economy remains a top concern for Americans, especially during the pandemic. Since early 2020, millions have lost their jobs and continue to experience income volatility because of the economic downturn.

Although the percentage of all respondents who believe that when borrowers struggle it can hurt the economy is similar to last year’s figure, it fell dramatically among borrowers: In 2019, 82% of those with a loan agreed, compared with 61% this year. This drop could reflect a recognition of government assistance for borrowers since the start of the pandemic.

Eighty-one percent agree that the government should make it easier for borrowers to repay student loans. A majority from both major political parties—a sizable 90% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans—said they see a role for the government in addressing problems in the student loan repayment system. Those currently with loans were also more likely to support this statement (88%). In addition, respondents who are women, young, and people of color—those who could be most likely to benefit—are among those most likely to support government action.

Although the current period of paused payments is providing short-term financial relief to many, Americans seem anxious about an uncertain future—nearly a quarter (23%) are not too or not at all confident that their household will be financially secure in six months. In addition, 58% of borrowers reported that it would be difficult to resume student loan payments in the next month if they had to do so. Recent Pew research highlights that even when the economy is functioning well, many borrowers need help in repayment.

At the same time, 61% agree that borrowers can do more to prioritize repaying their student loans, down from 79% last year. This significant drop could be because of widespread awareness of the struggles that many borrowers have experienced repaying their loans and of the current pause in payments. It could also reflect that when borrowers have more limited resources, a reality faced by many during the pandemic, they report needing to cover costs for expenses such as transportation, housing, child care, and groceries before paying student loans.

Importantly, views on this question and people’s opinions on government action are not held independently of one another. Among those who believe that borrowers need to do more to prioritize their loans, 77% also say that there is a role for government to play.

Improving access to higher education is among the most effective strategies available to bolster families’ economic security and mobility, and two-thirds (67%) in this survey said that the potential benefits of higher education make taking on such debt reasonable. Although this level is slightly higher than in some other opinion research, Americans support efforts to find solutions that focus on improving the student loan repayment system. In fact, the Pew survey highlights the importance of ensuring that the system provides a path to long-term repayment success. That’s critically important in a time when tens of millions of borrowers will reenter repayment in January.

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. 4-23 and Sept. 1-6, 2020, among a sample of 1,831 respondents. The margin of error for all respondents was plus or minus 2.62 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. 

Sarah Sattelmeyer is the project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on student borrower success.

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