Talking Points

Biden's approval is down. Student debt forgiveness won't help.

The Biden administration is in trouble. Its slide in popularity, which began during the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, shows no sign of stopping. Even some of Democrats' most loyal constituencies are turning away: A survey released last week found just 29 percent of voters under 30 approve of the job President Biden is doing.

That dire situation among younger voters explains the administration's renewed interest in student debt relief. A previous commitment would restart the collection of federal loan payments in February, but Department of Education officials are now considering further extension of the moratorium that was imposed under former President Donald Trump. Although no decision has been announced, the possibility of a reversal follows a pressure campaign from Capitol Hill Democrats and activist groups. 

Advocates of payment deferral or outright loan forgiveness argue Biden risks alienating previously enthusiastic supporters — whose votes the Democratic Party will need in the coming midterms — if he doesn't act. But there's also a risk of backlash if he does: A new poll finds the public sharply divided on the student debt question. Although there's strong support for some measure of debt relief, just 19 percent favor blanket forgiveness.

The results break down along expected lines. Democrats, millennials, and those with college or graduate degrees are all more likely to favor debt relief. Republicans, baby boomers, and those without degrees are more opposed. In other words, opinions here reflect existing party coalitions, as educated professionals coalesce around Democrats while the working and blue collar middle drift toward the GOP.

That's exactly why Democrats should be strategically wary of student loan forgiveness. Some of their core constituencies owe a lot of money for their degrees and would be delighted to be rid of the burden. But they also tend to earn higher incomes, even relative to the higher costs of living in the metro areas where they congregate. Partly as a result of those incomes, they also enjoy higher marriage rates and other indicators of social health.  

Despite stereotypes, moreover, the average undergraduate debt is relatively manageable — about the price of a new car. The shockingly high debts held by graduates often profiled in reports on this issue tend to be for professional degrees that seriously increase lifetime earnings. There's also a growth industry of exploitative master's degrees that impose costs similar to a JD but offer none of the professional benefits. It's not clear, though, that students lured into expensive graduate programs in public health or film are a very large or sympathetic constituency, however overrepresented they are on social media. 

By contrast, the majority of the adult population doesn't even have a bachelor's degree, and that includes millions who borrowed to attend college but did not graduate. There's a strong case for helping these Americans, who bear the costs of higher education but enjoy none of the benefits — and for making universities risk their own money on the financial trajectory of their students. But concentrating benefits on an already successful group is a slap in the face to precisely the non-professional, older, and more rural voters whom Democrats need to court.