Student loans and the cost of college are two issues that have been getting increasing attention over the past decade with the total outstanding student loan debt now approaching $1.7 trillion.
There is no shortage of stories about student loan borrowers who have had their lives derailed by this often-crippling debt, and the problem continues to get worse over time as the increase in college costs continues to outpace inflation.
On top of all of this, millions of Americans have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it even harder to pay down debt.
While the federal government has helped some by setting interest rates at 0% and requiring no payments on federal student loans, this relief is set to end on December 31, 2020.
With Joe Biden winning the recent election, many student loan borrowers are eager to see what policies he has planned to help them out—especially those surrounding student loan forgiveness.
We surveyed 1,000 borrowers with federal student loan debt to better understand what they think about the solutions Joe Biden and other legislators have proposed, as well as how the former vice president winning the election has changed their student loan repayment strategy.
Before we dive into specific parts of the survey, we wanted to highlight some of the key findings. Here are some of the most important things we found:
- Student loan borrowers largely support federal student loan forgiveness with over 70% of respondents saying they “strongly support” or “somewhat support” four of the major solutions proposed by lawmakers recently. Learn more.
- 9.6% of federal student loan borrowers stopped making payments once Joe Biden won the election, with another 14.4% electing to make smaller payments as compared to before the election. Learn more.
- 14% of borrowers plan to skip mandatory payments once the COVID-19 relief program ends knowing that there’s a possibility of receiving student loan forgiveness once Joe Biden takes office. Learn more.
- Over 35% of borrowers believe they either won’t be able to make payments (14.1%) or are unlikely to be able to make payments (21.7%) once the COVID-19 relief program for student loans ends on December 31, 2020. Learn more.
- 37.94% of borrowers who have private student loans would enter into bankruptcy to have them discharged if this became allowed under the Biden administration. Learn more.
- 44.9% of borrowers would use the new income-driven repayment plan proposed by Joe Biden if it became available. Learn more.
- 48.2% of borrowers believe that those who recently paid off their student loans should receive some sort of compensation if there is student loan forgiveness under the Biden administration. Learn more.
- An overwhelming 82.4% of borrowers either “strongly support” (56.7%) or “somewhat support” (25.7%) Joe Biden’s plan of making public colleges and universities free for those whose household income is under $125,000. Learn more.
- 63.39% of respondents who attended private colleges or universities would have chosen to attend a public institution instead if they were free. Learn more.
Over 70% of Borrowers Support Each of Four Major Federal Student Loan Forgiveness Proposals
We started off by asking student loan borrowers if they supported four of the most popular student loan forgiveness proposals.
First, we asked about Joe Biden’s support for immediately canceling $10,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower as a part of his COVID-19 relief plan.
We also asked about the proposed plan from Senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren to forgive up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.
Next, we gauged support for Biden’s suggested solution of completely cancelling all federal student loan debt used for undergraduate studies for those making under $125,000 who attended public and historically Black institutions.
Finally, we asked borrowers if they support the complete forgiveness of federal student loan debt. For reference, federal student loan debt accounts for over 92% of the nearly $1.7 trillion in total outstanding student debt.
As you can see from the chart above, borrowers are largely supportive of federal student loan forgiveness initiatives, with at least 70% supporting each of the four proposals.
Of all the scenarios suggested, Joe Biden’s $10,000 in COVID-19 relief had the most support among respondents. Compared to the other options, this would cost the government—and subsequently taxpayers—by far the least amount of money. This would be especially helpful if the current period of no required student loan payments isn’t extended past the December 31, 2020 expiration date.
From there, support slowly declines with each more expensive option. While complete federal student loan forgiveness had the least support among borrowers, it was surprising to see that 74.2% of respondents still said they either somewhat or strongly support it.
It remains unclear whether Joe Biden could or would attempt to use executive action to cancel student debt or if it would have to go through Congress. If the Republican party maintains its majority in the Senate, it’s unlikely any large-scale forgiveness legislation would pass.
Smaller relief, such as the $10,000 in forgiveness to help with COVID-19, has a much better shot at getting done quickly.
We also decided to ask borrowers what they would do with any extra money they have after their student loans are forgiven. You can see their answers in the chart below.
Nearly 1 in 10 Borrowers Stopped Making Payments Once Joe Biden Won the Election
We were curious whether borrowers changed their student loan repayment strategy once Joe Biden won the election.
If President Trump was reelected, it would have been very unlikely that he would have pushed for student loan forgiveness. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has suggested multiple forgiveness initiatives to help those struggling.
The following chart shows respondents’ answers when we asked if they changed how they are currently handling student loan payments compared to before the election.
As shown in the graphic, the majority of borrowers either did not change their payment amounts or were already not making payments as allowed by the COVID-19 relief plan.
Still, nearly 10% of borrowers stopped making payments while another 14.4% started making smaller payments since the election. This is likely because they don’t want to make payments on debt that may be cancelled in the next few months, especially when payments aren’t currently required.
14% of Borrowers Plan to Skip Mandatory Payments in Anticipation of Having Their Student Loans Forgiven
As mentioned above, the COVID-19 relief program suspending required payments and setting interest rates at 0% on federal student loans expires on December 31, 2020. Until then, borrowers can skip payments on their federal student loans without penalty or having interest capitalize.
If that program isn’t extended, however, federal student loan payments would be required again.
We wanted to figure out if any borrowers were planning to skip these mandatory payments in anticipation of receiving student loan forgiveness.
As shown in the chart above, the majority of borrowers plan on making their required minimum payment starting in January.
A considerable 14%, however, will not make payments knowing that there may be student loan forgiveness around the corner when Joe Biden takes office.
Borrowers electing to go this route should consider entering into an income-driven repayment plan if they aren’t currently employed or have little income, or put their loans into forbearance if they are employed, to avoid having their loans enter into delinquency which can affect their credit scores.
Over 35% of Borrowers Think They’ll Have Trouble Making Payments if the COVID-19 Relief Program Isn’t Extended
With millions of Americans still out of jobs due to the pandemic, it’s likely to be impossible or very difficult for student loan borrowers to make mandatory payments with little-to-no income if the above-mentioned COVID-19 relief program is not extended.
The following chart shows what proportion of respondents thought they would be able to afford their payments if the COVID-19 relief program isn’t extended past December 31, 2020.
It’s concerning that over 35% of respondents do not think they’ll be able to make their payments if the relief program isn’t extended.
While most of these borrowers would be able to enter into an income-driven repayment plan or forbearance that would require no or small payments, the interest would continue to compound, increasing their total debt amount for as long as they aren’t making normal payments.
A specific relief initiative targeted at those with student loans, such as the $10,000 in forgiveness mentioned above, may be necessary to help struggling borrowers not fall behind on payments.
Nearly 40% of Respondents With Private Student Loan Debt Would Enter Into Bankruptcy To Have It Discharged
Since the government originates and holds federal student loans, they can offer repayment plans and programs to help borrowers facing financial hardship.
Financial hardship programs are much less common, however, with private student loans from banks and other lenders. In addition, these loans often have higher interest rates than federal loans, making them more expensive.
Another part of Joe Biden’s higher education and student loan plan is to allow private student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy—which they currently aren’t in most cases.
Knowing this, we wanted to see whether those who have private student loans (in addition to federal loans; 53.5% of our respondents) would consider entering into bankruptcy to discharge their loans.
Perhaps the most alarming stat from this survey, we found that 37.94% of borrowers would enter into bankruptcy to have their loans discharged while another 22.06% are unsure.
Bankruptcy can have long-lasting negative financial consequences including the loss of property and long-term damage to credit, making it much harder to get other loans and credit cards in the future.
It’s apparent that the stress and hardship that student loans cause these borrowers outweigh these consequences, though—a sign of just how crippling this debt can be.
Nearly Half of Borrowers Would Opt to Use Joe Biden’s Proposed Income-Driven Repayment Plan
The federal government currently offers a variety of income-driven repayment plans that limit student loan payments to 10% – 20% of borrowers’ income and offer forgiveness after 20 – 25 years of payments.
President-elect Biden has suggested a new plan, however, that is even more generous to those struggling with their debt.
Under the plan, there would be no required payments for those making under $25,000 per year. Those making more than that would only have to pay 5% of their discretionary income over $25,000 towards their loans each month.
There would still be forgiveness after 20 years, but Biden would work to make sure that the forgiven amount isn’t taxed like it currently is for borrowers.
The following chart shows whether borrowers would use this new plan or stick with their current plan.
As shown, just under half of borrowers would enroll in this new plan, while another 22.40% are undecided.
While this plan would surely provide some financial relief to borrowers struggling with payments, it’s important that borrowers understand how it affects the overall cost of their loans.
Interest often accrues much faster on income-driven repayment plans as compared to the standard 10-year repayment plan since loan payments are typically much smaller. Borrowers may not actually pay down the principal on their loans, leaving them stuck with the debt until the 20-year period is up. In some cases, the plan may not save some borrowers money even if they do receive forgiveness.
Before switching to any income-driven repayment plan—including the new one proposed by Joe Biden—borrowers should do their best to calculate the long-term cost of their loans and think about what is financially feasible for them.
48.2% of Current Borrowers Think Those That Recently Paid Off Debt Should Receive Compensation if There is Forgiveness
There are many past student loan borrowers who think it’s unfair to forgive the student loan debt of current borrowers when they worked hard to pay off their own debt.
We wanted to flip the script to see whether current borrowers think past borrowers should receive some sort of compensation if there is wide-scale student loan forgiveness.
Nearly half (48.2%) of current borrowers think past borrowers should receive compensation. While this would help satisfy those who think forgiveness to current borrowers is unfair, it’s unlikely to happen as it would increase the cost of an already expensive relief plan.
Student Loan Borrowers Strongly Support Making Public Institutions Free
Our last set of questions shifted away from student loans, at least directly, and instead focused on Joe Biden’s proposal of making public colleges and universities free for those whose household income is under $125,000.
We first asked all respondents if they support this initiative:
Much like the student loan forgiveness proposals, the majority of respondents either strongly support (56.7%) or somewhat support (25.7%) free public college for those whose households under $125,000.
To take it a step further, we next asked those who attended private institutions (29.5% of all respondents) if they would have attended a public institution if it were free.
Over 60% of respondents who attended a private college or university said they would have enrolled in a public institution if it were free.
While this isn’t too surprising given how bad the student loan situation seems to be for many, it must be concerning for private institutions who may soon have trouble getting students to enroll given the potential massive price difference between them and public schools.
All data in this report come from a survey commissioned by Intelligent and ran by Pollfish on November 24, 2020. In total, 1,000 people in the United States who currently have federal student loan debt were surveyed. A screener question was used to ensure all respondents had federal student loan debt.