Key findings:

  • 1 in 10 still have student loan debt 20 years later.
  • 49% of Americans support student loan forgiveness, 19% oppose it, and 32% are undecided.
  • 1/2 of America supports cancelling student loan debt as a way to stimulate the economy.
  • 1/3 of opponents say cancelling debt would be “unfair.”

In 2020, amid a pandemic-driven recession, the total student loan debt in the U.S. hit $1.7 trillion—its highest level ever.

This figure, coupled with the temporary pause of federal student loan payments, has made the question of whether the federal government should forgive some or all student loan debt one of the hottest policy debates in the country. Several Democratic U.S. senators are pushing for cancellation of up to $50,000 of federal student loans per borrower, while President Joe Biden has pitched $10,000 of student loan forgiveness per individual.

Meanwhile, American citizens have yet to come to a consensus on how the student loan debt crisis should be handled. In a new survey conducted by, 49% of Americans say they are in favor of student loan forgiveness, while 19% oppose the idea, and 32% are undecided.

A driving factor in the debate about student debt cancellation is the fact that, for a variety of reasons, a significant number of borrowers are unable to pay off their loans in the standard 10-20 year repayment period, meaning individuals could be carrying debt that they took on in their late teens well into middle age, or beyond.

42% of people who took out student loan more than 20 years ago still carry college debt

Overall, 27% of people surveyed borrowed money from the federal government to pay for school. Of that group, 61% are still paying off those loans.

The percentage of people paying off student loans is highest among individuals who have been out of school for 6-10 years. Seventy-six percent of people in this group, including those who graduated and those who left school without completing a degree, say they are still paying off student loans.

Given that standard federal student loan repayment plans are based on a minimum 10-year period, this isn’t striking. However, our survey found that a significant number of borrowers are still paying off loans well beyond that. Fifty-four percent of borrowers who left school 11 to 20 years ago, and 42% of those who left college more than 21 years ago, are still paying off their loans. Forty-five percent of people who left school more than 21 years ago still owe between $10,000 and $49,999, as do 43% of people who left school 11 to 20 years ago.

Because of the interest that continues accumulating on loans, once a borrower falls behind, it can be difficult to catch up.

“It’s common to see people, years after they left school, with a loan balance that actually exceeds the amount they originally borrowed because of accumulating interest,” says Intelligent Managing Editor Kristen Scatton. “There are borrowers making monthly payments on their loans, but that is only going towards interest, not the principal balance. Once you fall into that cycle, it gets a lot tougher to pay off the loan in a set amount of time.”

Those with student loan debt more likely to support forgiveness

Whether or not an individual currently has student loan debt is one of the key factors influencing where they stand on loan forgiveness. Individuals who don’t have student loan debt are nearly three times as likely as those who do to oppose forgiveness, by a rate of 25% to 9%.

However, a slight majority of people who don’t currently have student loans, 56%, do support forgiveness, as do 76% of Americans with student loans. The two groups have a similar percentage of people who are undecided—17% of people who have loans and 19% of people who do not.

Student loan forgiveness most popular among high-income earners

When analyzed by other demographics, those who earn more money are most likely to support student loan forgiveness than those who earn less.

Fifty-eight percent of high-income individuals (those who earn $100,000 or more annually) say they are in favor of student debt cancellation, compared to 52% of middle-income earners ($50,000-$99,999 annually), and 40% of low-income earners ($49,999 or less annually).

Individuals from all three income groups oppose student loan forgiveness at similar rates: 19% of low- and middle-income individuals, and 18% of high-income individuals.

2/3 support cancelling student debt to stimulate the economy

When asked to identify the reasons why they think forgiving student loan debt is a good idea, 62% of respondents say it’s because it will stimulate the economy. This issue took on greater importance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the U.S. economy to shrink 3.5%, the largest drop in 74 years. This opinion is especially popular among individuals who have student loans, at 80%.

“It’s a rational argument,” says Scatton. “The average borrower pays about $400 a month, or $4,800 per year, towards their student loans. Think of all the things people could do with an extra $5,000 per year such as buying a home, car, or traveling—all things that stimulate the economy.”

1/3 support income scale to determine student loan forgiveness eligibility

Although there’s a majority consensus that student loan forgiveness is necessary to address the student loan debt crisis, there’s far less agreement on how that should manifest.

Roughly one-fifth of supporters, 19%, say everyone should have 100% of their loans forgiven. A slightly lower percentage, 15%, say only non-profit workers should have 100% of their loans forgiven.

The metric that received the largest share of votes, 33%, is based on annual income, with those who earn less getting a higher percentage of their loans forgiven, and vice versa. This proposal is most popular with low-income earners, 42% of whom support this idea, compared to 27% of middle-income earners, and 28% of high-income earners.

Opposition cites fairness, personal accountability

The most selected point of opposition by those against student loan forgiveness at 37% is a lack of fairness as other students before them were forced to pay off their loans.

Thirty-six percent of respondents say student loan forgiveness is a bad idea because it encourages poor personal accountability.

Another major concern is the impact this will have on current and future students. Thirty-four percent of respondents say student loan forgiveness is a bad idea because it will encourage current and incoming students to borrow more money than they need for college. Individuals who currently have loans they are paying off are slightly more worried about this than individuals who don’t have loans, at a rate of 39% to 33%.

Twenty-seven percent of those in opposition say forgiving federal student loan debt is unfair to individuals who borrowed money from private lenders, while 19% are concerned that forgiving the debt will drastically accelerate inflation.


The data from this report comes from an online survey created and paid for by The survey was administered by online survey platform Pollfish on April 12, 2021. We surveyed 1250 Americans aged 18 and older who are not currently enrolled in a post-secondary education program regarding their views on federal student loan forgiveness proposals. Respondents included individuals from a range of educational backgrounds, as well as those who did and did not currently have student loan debt.

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