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Support for debt relief was, not surprisingly, far higher among borrowers themselves.

One thing that comes through really clearly with this poll is that those closest to the issue, people that currently hold student loan debt, are in a very different position from the American public as a whole,” says Mallory Newall of Ipsos.

Eighty-four percent of borrowers supported $10,000 of relief, 78% backed a jump to $50,000 and still two-thirds (68%) supported forgiving all student loan debt.

Support was far weaker among respondents without student loans: Half supported $10,000 of relief, and just 37% supported full debt cancellation.

The Biden administration has also hinted it might exclude high-income borrowers from relief – those who earn more than $150,000 a year or couples who earn more than $300,000. But when asked about income limits, poll respondents’ views about debt relief didn’t budge.

Don’t leave out grad school borrowers

The Biden administration has floated the possibility of forgiving only undergraduate debt, based on the assumption that a borrower with a graduate degree is in a better position to pay off their debts. But according to this new survey, Americans don’t see a meaningful difference.

Sixty-five percent of all respondents agreed: If the government forgives some student loan debt, it should be for any type of education, whether that’s undergraduate or graduate.

Just 30% said, if the government is going to forgive debt, it should only be for undergraduates.

Erasing old debts vs. fixing the system

In one of the poll’s most unexpected findings, respondents were asked to choose which sentence they agreed with more:

  1. “The government should prioritize making college more affordable for current and future students”
  2. “The government should prioritize forgiving some debt for those with existing student loans”

A whopping 82% said the government’s priority should be making college more affordable for current and future students. Just 16% believed forgiving student debts should take priority.

What that tells me is that, while student loan forgiveness for some is seen as a good proposal and a short-term fix, where we actually need to go from here is true, systematic change,” Newall says.

The other surprise is that respondents with student loans felt similarly.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents with student loans said the government should focus first on fixing the system, while 41% said the government should prioritize debt cancellation.

“If I had to pick one for me, today: Forgive student loans,” says Briana Ford, 27, of Columbia, S.C. She has roughly $50,000 in student loan debts from college and is now earning a graduate degree.

Ford says she has tried, at every turn, to pay for her education without relying on loans, but she’s incredibly frustrated with the high cost of college and worries that a generation of students are taking on loans they cannot afford because they see no other viable path into the middle-class.

That’s why, even though Ford wants Biden to prioritize forgiving the debts of past borrowers, she says the federal government must also do something to help future borrowers.

I acknowledge that just forgiving student loans without addressing the problem is like draining a tub without turning off the faucet,” Ford says, but “in reality it isn’t an either-or. Political leaders actually can do two things.”

This could be a key fissure in the student debt debate as President Biden’s most ambitious efforts to remake the system moving forward remain unfulfilled, including his pitches to make community college free and to double the Pell Grant for low-income college students.

The general public seems to understand what economists have been worrying over for months: That a move to erase student debts without a plan to help future borrowers will simply lead to a new mountain of debt for a new generation of student debtors – and quickly.

In fact, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that “outstanding debt would return to its current level in 2027 for $10,000 of forgiveness, in 2034 for $50,000 of forgiveness, and in 2039 for full cancellation.”

What borrowers have done during the student loan payment pause

Federal student loan payments have been on pause since March 2020. According to the poll, 57% of borrowers have not made a single payment during the pause, and 20% have never made a payment toward their student loans.

Twins Morgan and Trianna Downing are among the roughly 4 million college students who graduated in spring 2020, directly into the student loan payment freeze. They’ve never known the pressures of regular loan payments. Now, a couple years into the job market and with their sights set on grad school, the twins have very different views of their finances.

Twins Morgan (right) and Trianna Downing are among the roughly 4 million college students who graduated in spring 2020, directly into the student loan payment freeze. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for NPR)

Trianna wants to pay down her undergraduate debt before taking more loans out for grad school.

“I don’t mind starting to pay mine back now. My hope is to pay them off in less than four to six years, and I’ve made a budget so that I can do that.”

The poll suggests she’s an unusual case – just a small slice of 18- to 25-year-old respondents said they have made payments during the pause.

Morgan feels differently. She says she made a few loan payments after graduating, but “after like the second or third payment, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. Why am I making payments?’ “

She says her undergraduate loans don’t feel real, and she’s waiting to see if President Biden will come through on his campaign promise to cancel at least $10,000 in student debt per person.

“I was excited to vote for a president that was saying [he] was going to clear [my] debt,” Morgan says.

In fact, 42% of borrowers in the NPR/Ipsos poll said they haven’t made a payment during the pause because they’re hoping their debts will be forgiven.

The payment pause gave borrowers room to breathe

Forty-seven percent of the borrowers NPR and Ipsos surveyed said the payment pause has improved their mental health.

Newall at Ipsos says that’s evident when you look at how borrowers spent the money they didn’t have to put toward their loans. The top three expenses in that category include essentials like food, rent and gas (51%); paying down other debts (45%); and putting money into savings (44%).

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