- Most young people surveyed in a newly-released Harvard University poll (85%) are in favor of government action on student loan debt.
- More than one third (38%) of the 2,024 young Americans surveyed favor total debt cancellation.
- When asked about mental health, 52% of young people surveyed reported feelings of depression or hopelessness.
Young people want student loan debt relief but they may not want it eradicated altogether, researchers found in a recent Harvard University poll.
A total of 2,024 18-to-29-year-olds were surveyed; of them, 85% said they favor some form of government action on student loan debt, but only 38% favor total debt cancellation.
The poll was done as part of the Harvard Public Opinion Project to look at how young Americans feel about politics, voting and public service. It’s one of two the university does per year – one in the fall and one in the spring – said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
This is only the organization’s second time asking people if they support government response regarding student loan debt, said Della Volpe, who served as a public opinion consultant during President Joe Biden’s campaign.
Still, there are limits to how much the public can read into the result, he said, noting that it’s a nuanced topic and the polling industry hasn’t handled complex topics well in the past.
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However, during some Institute-organized focus groups, Della Volpe said, young people really seem to care about fairness in finding solutions to student loan debt.
For example, some focus group participants ask whether a person making hefty wageson Wall Street should have their debts washed clean, or whether relief should only be given to those in dire need.
“What’s fair?” Della Volpe asked. “Perhaps (relief for) public servants of some kind and other kinds of lower wage workers. Then there’s conversations about those who never attend college because of concerns about taking on debt.”
The institute’s most recent poll also found that 48% of young Americans think going to college is worth the time and money (18% of those respondents strongly agreed it is), 26% disagreed and 24% chose a neutral position.
Discussions about the cost of college and debt need to be more focused, said Jorge Burmickyan assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University.
“Someone who’s pursuing a graduate professional degree, by nature of the degree, will have to take on more debt to be able to pursue that degree,” Burmicky said. “Someone who’s going into medical school or law school, naturally, will have to take on more loans to be able to to attend.”
He also said borrowers who are Latinx – of Latin American origin or descent – or Black are “disproportionately overrepresented when it comes to student debt borrowing or student debt in general.”
“People are hurt by student loans very differently and some are more likely to pay it back than others, depending on your field, depending on your background,” Burmicky said.
Other Harvard Youth Poll findings
Among Democrats likely to vote in November:
- 43% favor canceling student loan debt for everyone
- 29% favor canceling student loan debt for only those most in need
- 19% favor not canceling debt, but helping with repayment options
- 4% favor not changing the current policy
Among Republicans likely to vote in November:
- 13% favor canceling student loan debt for everyone
- 11% favor canceling student loan debt for only those most in need
- 39% favor not canceling debt, but helping with repayment options
- 36% favor not changing the current policy
Among independents likely to vote in November:
- 38% favor canceling student loan debt for everyone
- 18% favor canceling student loan debt for only those most in need
- 30% favor not canceling debt, but helping with repayment options
- 14% favor not changing the current policy
When asked about President Biden specifically, 70% of young Democrats approve of his job performance, while 33% of independents and 11% of Republicans approve.
Of those who don’t approve of President Biden’s job performance, 36% noted ineffectiveness, while 14% said he hasn’t followed through on his campaign promises and 10% said Biden he doesn’t share their values.
More than one-third, 36%, of young Americans surveyed said they will “definitely” vote. That compares to 37% in 2018.
“There’s usually a strong correlation between dissatisfaction with Washington and likelihood to vote,” Della Volpe said. “We need to watch that carefully between now and November because it could change.”
Many young Americans feel ‘under attack’
The poll also included questions about mental health, finding that more than half (52%) reported feelings of depression or hopelessness; and 24% report thoughts of self-harm.
Results also showed that 59% of young Black Americans, 43% of young Asian Americans and 37% of young Hispanic Americans feel “under attack” “a lot” in America, while nearly half of LGBTQ youth feel under attack “a lot.”
Despite the nation’s divided politics, Della Volpe is “cautiously optimistic” that young Americans can work toward improvements and change.
“This conversation and understanding the depth of mental health crisis, and specifically some of the tolls it’s taking on our most vulnerable populations, those are two big things for me,” he said.