President Joe Biden’s ambitious new plan to expand access to higher education has a key missing piece: it leaves millions struggling with student loan debt to carry that burden alone. As a president who frequently speaks of his working-class upbringing in Scranton, Biden is stuck on incorrect assumptions about loan forgiveness and class—a blind spot in his education policy that is both unpopular and misinformed.
Biden has repeatedly dismissed the idea of forgiving up to $50,000 in student debt, noting: “The idea that … I’m going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars in debt, for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn…” Loan forgiveness, Biden seems to say, is unfair to the less fortunate because it pays for the education of wealthy students who went to elite schools. But new data shows that it’s actually wealthier people who oppose loan forgiveness. Those who are low income are its strongest supporters.
There is a simple story here—and President Biden is missing it. Low-income Americans don’t view loan forgiveness as a giveaway to those already at the top of the economic ladder. They believe it opens the door to economic opportunity for everyone.
A recent Grinnell College National Poll, conducted by Selzer & Co., found broad support for cancelling student loan debt. Over 66 percent of Americans favored some form of loan forgiveness, either by forgiving loans for everyone with student debt (27 percent) or for those in need (39 percent).
While majorities of people at every income level support loan forgiveness, opposition to it is concentrated among wealthier Americans. Just 12 percent of those who make $25,000 or under oppose loan forgiveness, compared to 44 percent of those making over $100,000 per year.
Interestingly, there is no difference in support for loan forgiveness by educational attainment. Those with a high school education are just as likely to support forgiving loans as those with a college education.
In short, there’s just no evidence in our polling that Biden’s class-based view of loan forgiveness is shared by those whose interests he is seeking to protect.
We strongly support Biden’s American Families Plan to make higher education more accessible with free two-year community college for all students and an $80 billion investment in Pell Grants.
But, by not taking on the issue of loans, Biden’s plan leaves recent graduates saddled with debt that they may carry for decades. According to the Brookings Institution, about 42 million—one in eight—Americans owe student debt, which totals $1.5 trillion. Worries about accumulating debt keep many promising students out of college and place an enormous burden on recent graduates.
This debt impacts how graduates, and students who dropped out but are still in debt, are able to live. Debt can make it impossible to do things like buy a car or pursue certain careers, as lower paying jobs like teaching and social work become unrealistic. And in the case of default, Pew finds that graduates can get trapped in a vicious cycle of collection fees, long-term damaged credit, and even suspension of professional licenses that can threaten employment.
This hardship is disproportionately borne by low-income students whose families can’t help them financially and by people of color. Black college graduates owe an average of $7,400 more than their white peers at graduation and four years after graduation they owe almost twice as much as white graduates.
While fears of incurring student debt may prevent young people from accessing higher education, those who can go to college are significantly more likely than those who don’t to achieve upward mobility in comparison to their parents. Research shows this effect is especially pronounced for low-income students.
President Biden’s plan to increase access to higher education would be the most important investment in education in a generation if it’s enacted. It reflects the core belief that a more educated population benefits all Americans, and that investing in education is a societal responsibility. In that spirit, it’s time for the president to support more aggressive loan forgiveness proposals and ease the burden of Americans struggling with debt.
Dr. Peter Hanson is the director of the Grinnell College National Poll and associate professor of political science at Grinnell College. Georgia Rawhouser-Mylet is a member of the Grinnell College Class of 2021.