Should Biden forgive student loans and reduce college costs?

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This coming Sunday, May 1, is National College Decision Day — the deadline for high school seniors to commit to the college of their choice. More than 2 million students are expected to enroll in higher education for the first time this fall. That’s 2 million families deciding how to pay for college, whether through scholarships, loans, contributions from parents and other family members, or some combination thereof.

As sociologists who study higher education finance, we have a keen interest in how students and families pay for college — including how Americans would like these systems to change. For the past decade, we have been conducting interviews with Americans to understand their notions of responsibility for higher education. Over time, we have documented sizable shifts in how Americans think about this issue. More and more support government investment in higher education.

How we conducted our research

Our main data are from national phone surveys we conducted in 2010 and 2015 through the Indiana Center for Survey Research. We spoke with 831 respondents in summer 2010 and 847 respondents in summer 2015. As we describe in detail in our book and materials posted here, respondents were broadly representative of U.S. adults with respect to key demographics and social attitudes. We then conducted follow-up web surveys through Qualtrics in fall 2019 with 1,201 respondents and summer 2020 with 1,223 respondents. Notably, we collected the 2020 data after the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, essentially to gauge whether the pandemic had altered people’s views on this issue.

We start each interview or survey with two key questions. First, we ask people who should have the main responsibility for funding a college education. Should it be students, parents, the federal government, or the state and local government? Second, we ask people who should have the second most responsibility, with the same possible responses.

We do this because when we put their answers together, we learn a lot about how respondents approach the funding of college. People who choose “students” and “parents” we classify as individualists: They believe that individuals should be responsible for higher education, with little involvement from government. People who choose “government” we classify as collectivists: They believe that government should facilitate access to higher education by assuming most of the financial responsibility. People who list both an individual and a government stakeholder endorse a shared responsibility, which requires individual investment but with sizable contributions from public sources.

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Over time more Americans have endorsed either collective or shared responsibility for funding college

When we first started conducting interviews in 2010, the results were clear: Most Americans, or about two-thirds, preferred individualist college funding, in which students and parents pay. (Note: when we refer to percentages, these are actually predicted probabilities derived from models with controls for age, race/ethnicity, gender, education, and income.)

This did not surprise us. Historically, Americans have believed deeply in self-reliance and individual responsibility. Federal financial aid forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) assume that parents will pay some or all of their children’s college costs, treating this individualistic approach as a given.

Decades ago, when one of us analyzed federal data on these same questions from the 1980s, the results were almost identical to what we found in our 2010 survey. Because public opinion stayed virtually the same between 1980 and our survey in 2010, we assumed that this individualistic tendency would persist into the future.

That’s not what happened. When we conducted interviews again in 2015, we found Americans far more receptive to government investment in higher education. In fact, our sample was evenly split between those who preferred an individualist solution and those who wanted government to make much more substantial contributions to funding a college education. That’s what we found again in our follow-up surveys in 2019 and 2020: Americans increasingly believed that government should have a substantial responsibility for funding higher education.

By 2020, shared responsibility was the most common response (40 percent), followed by individualists (36 percent) and collectivists (23 percent). While collectivists are still the smallest group overall, they’ve nearly tripled their share of the responses in just one decade: In 2010, only 9 percent of respondents preferred a collectivist solution in which government funds higher education, as you can see in the figure below.

Rising debt and increasing college costs have pushed more Americans to believe government should help pay

Although this rapid change in public opinion surprised us — usually, U.S. public opinion is very slow to change — our interviewees gave explanations that made perfect sense.

They spoke about rising student loan debt, which has only accelerated. They spoke about higher education as a right rather than a privilege, and the need to earn a bachelor’s degree to earn a middle-class living. They also spoke about broadening access to college for those who have no hope of paying their own way.

As one man we spoke with said, “We are a Black family living on supplemental income from another family. And no matter what I do, I know my kids will not have the opportunity to make it to higher education. We can’t afford it.”

If government were to make greater investments in higher education, our interviewees said, cost would be much less of a barrier for students on the economic margins.

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This year, as College Decision Day looms, President Biden and his administration are considering forgiving federal student loans. Just as families are deciding how they will shoulder their responsibility for college, Biden is deciding what the role of government is and should be. For generations, college has been considered an individual good, but our data suggest that more Americans are ready to see the burden of college collectively shared.

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Natasha Quadlin (@nquadlin) is assistant professor of sociology at UCLA.

Brian Powell (@brianpowelliu) is James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology at Indiana University.

Together they are the authors of “Who Should Pay? Higher Education, Responsibility, and the Public” (Russell Sage Foundation, 2022).