Whether the nation’s $1.5 trillion student debt problem represents a crisis is a matter of debate among policy makers and experts. But ask regular voters what they think and the answer seems pretty clear.
More than half of Republicans, 67% of Independents and 71% of Democrats agree that student debt is a crisis, according to a recent poll of 1,000 voters conducted by Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting on behalf of Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsible Lending, two consumer advocacy organizations.
“It’s pretty clear that regardless of political orientation, people see it not just as a problem, but as a crisis-level problem,” said Alexis Goldstein, a senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, a nonprofit organization advocating for stricter financial regulation.
That regular Americans are coming down on one side of that distinction is more important than simply semantics. Among wonks and academics it’s a question whether student debt constitutes a crisis for our nation and our economy broadly or simply a crisis for specific individuals or groups. Experts on different sides of that divide tend to have different approaches to solving our student loan problems.
But the poll released this week suggests the debate is going on separately from how Americans experience student debt, said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a left-leaning think tank. And indeed, there are many reasons why voters may be feeling anxious over student debt.
Over the past several years, tuition went up while wages stayed stagnant, pushing families to spend more of their limited income on paying for college. And young people who graduated into the recession or post-recession economy have struggled to find jobs with salaries high enough to make their debt manageable.
“There’s the conversation happening at people’s kitchen tables and as people take stock of their finances,” Huelsman said. Increasingly in that conversation, “people view this as a major source of anxiety for them and their families.”
Sandy Baum, the author of “Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education,” who is famously — at least in student-debt circles — in the student-debt-is-a-crisis-for-some camp, said she understands why voters may view it this way. It’s likely most of the discussion they hear about student loans are about people for whom it is a crisis.
But more doors open for most people who borrow for college and graduate from college, she said. “There are certainly problems with the system that need to be fixed,” Baum said. “That’s very different from saying it’s an overall crisis.”
She worries that rhetoric focusing on student debt as a crisis pushes the conversation towards unrealistic solutions — like wiping away all student loans or getting rid of borrowing as an avenue to pay for college — that would come at the expense of more targeted fixes.
But for those who believe our student loan system requires an overhaul, the poll provides evidence that voters are looking for a dramatic solution. “Folks sort of feel stuck,” Goldstein said. Student loans are making it more difficult for people to take the next steps in their financial lives, including saving for retirement or buying a home. For borrowers facing the most extreme circumstance, say a default, the consequences can be even worse.
Given all of these factors, it makes sense that for many voters, student debt is a source of economic anxiety in need of a big fix, Huelsman said. “If you’re calling it a crisis, you are almost by necessity saying it demands pretty bold action.”
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