Enrichment Education

How support for student loan forgiveness varies along generational lines

“It is very easy for opponents of our movement to say that student debt cancellation is a handout to young people who are irresponsible,” one expert told Changing America.

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Although there’s widespread approval for student loan forgiveness, support often varies and even decreases with age, especially among older generations who hold larger loan balances on average.   

Progressive lawmakers and advocates are pushing the president to forgive up to $50,000 per borrower, which would collectively move millions of Americans out of debt, and young student debt holders across the U.S. favor at least some level, if not complete, student loan forgiveness for all federal borrowers. Yet President Biden has said he is “not considering $50,000 debt reduction.” 

Recent polling among likely voters shows vast support for forgiveness. More than half of respondents in an early April poll from the Student Borrower Protection Center said they are at least somewhat in favor of eliminating $50,000 for all borrowers. Around 46 percent of likely voters who supported forgiveness do not have student loans, the poll said. 

“It’s important to recognize that just because people no longer have student debt or never had it in the first place doesn’t mean that they don’t recognize how beneficial this is for their loved ones and for the economy more broadly,” Cody Hounanian, executive director of the Student Debt Crisis Prevention Center, told Changing America. 

Yet polling data shows less support for widespread loan forgiveness from Baby Boomers and Generation X than among Millennials. A majority of Millennials polled by Morning Consult late last year supported at least some loan forgiveness, compared to 45 percent of Baby Boomers who said there should be none. 

Millennials carry the most student debt with an average balance of $38,877 per borrower, but Baby Boomers – who hold an average of $40,512 per borrower—will have to pay more when the federal payment pause ends as they carry the highest debt. This is due partly to older borrowers taking out loans for graduate school.  

Generation X, which describes Americans born between 1965 and 1980, hold the largest average amount of student loan debt per borrower with typical balances sitting at $45,095. 

Still, polling shows older adults are the least likely to support forgiveness. At the same time, some analysts predict borrowers over 60, who account for around 32 percent of the U.S. population, will benefit the least from loan forgiveness. 

Fairness to borrowers who already paid off their student loans or to Americans who chose career paths without attending college is one major reason for the generational disparity in loan forgiveness views. Republican lawmakers emphasized this point when introducing legislation last week to stop Biden from cancelling loan payments, while calling the president’s legal authority to cancel loans “dubious at best.”  

“This decision would not only be unfair to those who already repaid their loans or decided to pursue alternative education paths, but it would be wildly inflationary at a time of already historic inflation,” Sent. Mitt Romney R-UT said.  


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This perspective is also held at the state government level with Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) recently pointing to the idea that people who’ve made different decisions should not be responsible for the choices of others.   

“Mississippians without college degrees (or who paid off their debt) should not be forced to pay for the student loans of others. Why should people who chose not to go to college or chose to settle their own loans be punished for the benefit of those who made different decisions,” Reeves wrote on Twitter in late April. 

But an underlying issue with the idea of fairness when arguing against loan forgiveness lies in a common misconception about who student loan holders are, experts said. Borrowers are often perceived as traditionally young and right out of high school. This is not the case anymore as changing economic circumstances push people of all ages to further their education, Hounanian said.  

“The average student isn’t that person. There are parents, single parents, older Americans who go back to skill up who are continuously reeducating themselves to be competitive in the 21st century economy and so unfortunately the word student loans I think is trapped in the stereotype of a young person student,” he said.  

“It is very easy for opponents of our movement to say that student debt cancellation is a handout to young people who are irresponsible who are not doing their part who haven’t contributed fully to society, and they are trying to frame this kind of villainous young person who doesn’t work hard and isn’t responsible and wants a handout.” 

Madeleine Simon contributed to this report.


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