Forgiveness of federal student loans, even partial forgiveness, appears to be a wildly unpopular idea in Utah, according to results of a recent Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Results of the poll of 808 Utah registered voters reflected low rates of support for federal loan forgiveness for all borrowers and only slightly higher support — 14% — for partial forgiveness of loans. Partially pardoning loans for lower-income borrowers had the highest level of support, but even then it was just 17% overall and as high as 25% among respondents with graduate degrees.
Only 11% of those polled said all federal student loans for all borrowers should be forgiven.
Forty-six percent of those who responded to the poll said the federal government should not cancel any student loans. The poll has a margin of error of 3.46 percentage points.
In some respects, the poll results were not surprising given Utah’s history of low levels of debt per borrower nationally and low rates of default.
But for borrowers like Anna Merrill, the poll results were disappointing, especially as news reports speculate that President Joe Biden is close to announcing some level of debt relief, possibly $10,000 per borrower.
Merrill, who graduated from the University of Utah in 2021, works in education administration. She has about $30,000 in student debt.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are either in school now or are recently out within the past five years, and from what I understand, everyone is like, ‘This would make such a big difference in my life.’ They have no idea how much this would mean to me if I got even partial forgiveness. I could do this and that,” she said.
Scholarships helped pay for Merrill’s education her first two semesters at the U. For her remaining years of college, she worked part time and student loans covered the rest of it.
Merrill said she has been “guarded” about getting her hopes up about student loan forgiveness. While federal student loan payments have been paused since March 2020 and expected to remain that way until the end of August, Merrill said lifting the hold when housing, fuel, food costs and medical expenses are so high will force some borrowers into difficult decisions.
Mostly, Merrill worries about future generations who do not qualify for financial aid nor do their families have enough personal wealth to pay for college.
“It kind of breaks my heart to see children and high schoolers have their hopes go up and then have the economic barrier ... that gets in their way of being able to go to school,” she said.
Lauren Santistevan, who graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2013, was recruited to work for Montage Deer Valley after earning her business degree. She has made regular payments on her student loans since but still has an outstanding balance close to $30,000.
“I’m 100% on board for loan forgiveness,” she said. “If you’re of a certain age and you’ve got your degree and you have a job and you’re contributing to society, and you’re paying taxes timely, these loans are just so massive for the average young adults to also have to incorporate into their financials.”
Even partial forgiveness would be a great help as she attempts to save for a home during a time of record housing prices, high fuel costs and other inflationary pressures, she said.
“How am I ever supposed to buy a house with just the market the way it is? It’s just so daunting and kind of pulls the hope from a young person trying to buy, right?” she said.
Ellie Cook, a producer for KSL Radio, is repaying her loans after graduating from the University of Utah in 2020. She received no scholarships or grants and owes about $30,000 in federal student loans.
Although she and other borrowers have had a reprieve from payment under executive orders related to COVID-19 relief, Cook said she is not looking forward to making loan payments on top of her other other obligations such as her phone, insurance and medical bills. Cook is living with her mother, which has helped her save some money, but her goal of having a place of her own seems a long way off given inflation, rising fuel and food prices, and her other obligations.
Cook said the poll results were “surprising and kind of disappointing, too. I get where a lot of people are coming from when they have had to struggle to pay their loans and stuff. But at the same time, it’s been such a crazy last few years. Obviously, the pandemic really took a hit on us and now inflation has taken a hit. ... For me, personally, I don’t think relief for all loans should happen, but at least everybody have some sort of relief.”
Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Woolstenhulme said the poll results did not surprise him because many Americans believe debt is a personal responsibility.
The Utah Board of Higher Education has not had a conversation about student loan forgiveness, much less taken a position, he said.
Rather, the board and he as commissioner are focused on making higher education more accessible. Earlier this year, the education board authorized the sale of the Federal Family Education Loan Program portfolio that has been administered by the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority.
Proceeds of the sale will fund an endowment estimated near $300 million that in future years will help fund scholarships to curb the cost of college.
The system is also working to keep tuition rates relatively low at state-supported colleges and universities. When compared to peer institutions out of state, costs in Utah are typically lower.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of doing that but it always needs constant attention,” Woolstenhulme said.
Even with those efforts “we still have students that can’t access it. For many, it’s still too high. So what do we do to help scholarship those students and to help be able to provide the financial support for them that they can have the access?
“That’s where we’re really focused, and that’s where we’re spending our energy, not so much about student loans that are already out there to be forgiven, but how do we keep students from getting that far into debt with student loans in the future?” he said.
In a related question, pollsters asked Utahns about the worth of a college degree, which experts say increases earning potential, marketability and personal growth. Health outcomes are also associated with levels of education.
When asked how important is a college education, a resounding 85% of Utahns said it was important, while 14% said it was not important. One percent responded that they did not know.
Woolstenhulme, who oversees the Utah System of Higher Education’s eight technical colleges and eight degree-granting colleges and universities, said that poll result was no surprise, either.
But “college” doesn’t necessarily mean a baccalaureate degree.
Woolstenhulme said educators, school advisors and families need to do a better job of guiding students into institutions and programs.
“We’ve got to have better conversations with our students upfront. ‘What is it really that you want to do?’ What we’re going to find out as we start having those honest conversations, there’s a lot of students that should be in a tech college because that’s where their career aspirations are — not because they’re not smart enough to go to the University of Utah, but because they want to be an electrician or they want to be working in heating, air conditioning, or they want to be an automotive or diesel mechanic or a welder or these things,” he said.
“Too many times we’ve just kind of almost force-fed students into our degree-granting institutions where they don’t do well. That’s why the completion rate is where it’s at in my mind, we haven’t set students up for success all the time.”