Young Georgia voters and Georgians who have graduated college support a White House plan to cut up to $20,000 from their student loan obligations, but the state as a whole remains divided on the issue. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
When Danny Randle graduated from Clark Atlanta University five years ago, he had big dreams for his future, but he quickly learned that would not be as easy as he planned.
Randle started a graphic design company, but with $80,000 of student loan debt, goals like growing his business and buying his first home seem just as distant as when he was a student.
“We have all this debt for student loans, but when people are trying to start businesses and create generational wealth, they can’t because of their student loans, so I just feel like it was a scam,” he said. “I don’t feel like college was a scam, but I feel like the whole college student loan debt, I feel like it was all a plan that we all just fell into.”
Over 43 million Americans owe a total of $1.73 trillion in federal and private student loan debt, according to the Education Data Initiative, a figure which has grown from just over half a trillion dollars in 2006.
The White House announced in August a plan to forgive some student loan debt for people who earn less than $125,000 as an individual or $250,000 as a household. Pell Grant recipients could be eligible for $20,000 in relief, and non-Pell borrowers could see $10,000 of their debt forgiven. The application is expected to become available this month and be available through 2023.
Democratic Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson touted the relief act’s potential benefit at a recent press conference, saying that Georgia has the third largest student loan debt in the country with roughly $68 million in total debt.
“What this means is that nearly 70% of Georgian borrowers eligible for forgiveness can get up to $20,000 of student debt cancellation, all thanks to President Biden. And by the way, an unbelievable 63,900 of my constituents are eligible for full forgiveness, meaning their balances will go to zero, while 158,900 are eligible for any amount of forgiveness.”
“Not only will they have a chance to pursue the American dream, but due to President Biden’s debt plan, the American dream itself is coming back to life.”
Republican lawmakers were less thrilled.
“President Biden’s student loan debt forgiveness scheme is an insult to the millions of hardworking Americans who have worked so hard to pay off their student loans and other debts,” said Republican Congressman Barry Loudermilk after the announcement. “Not only does this decision raise legal concerns, it will also not help inflation and will cost American taxpayers an estimated $300 billion.”
A poll released Wednesday paid for by the Georgia News Collaborative and conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center found Georgia voters are also divided, and differences in opinion on the plan fall along familiar fault lines.
Overall, Georgians told pollsters they support the plan, with 53.9% saying they strongly or somewhat approve of it and 38.8% strongly or somewhat disapproving and 7.3% were undecided.
Just under half of women who participated said they strongly support the plan, and another 12.4% somewhat approve. Only 32% said they were strongly or somewhat against it. The script is nearly reversed for men, with 43.9% strongly opposed and another 2.8% mildly peeved by the plan.
The racial divide is even more stark. Black Georgia voters approve of the White House plan nearly unanimously, with only 1.3% saying they strongly or somewhat disapprove and 3.3% undecided. The majority of white voters – 53.8% – strongly disapprove, and another 3.4% mildly disapprove.
Women and Black voters tend to support Democratic candidates, which may explain their tendency to also support a policy pushed by Democratic President Joe Biden. But it’s also the case that women and Black Georgians have more skin in the game, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.
“Consider that for a number of years now, about 60% of undergraduate students are women,” he said. “And women increasingly dominate the ranks of people in graduate and professional schools. So I would simply assume that there probably are more women who are carrying student debt than there are men. Also linked into that is we know that women generally earn less than men do, so they may be struggling even harder to pay off those debts.”
Education Data Initiative found in a 2021 report that parents of female students are less likely to take out loans on their children’s behalf than parents of male students, and women hold 58% of all student loan debt. The researchers also found women are more likely than men to make high monthly student loan payments despite earning 26% less money on average.
Similarly, Black graduates owe an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than white graduates, and they are the most likely to struggle financially due to their debt. Two-thirds of Black borrowers told Education Data Initiative that they regret having taken out student loans.
Unsurprisingly, younger Georgians are more likely to say they favor Biden’s plan, with majorities of those 18 to 29 and 30 to 44 backing the relief package and those over 44 more evenly split.
Bruce Walker, 49, of Columbia County, told pollsters he strongly opposes the debt forgiveness plan. Walker, who holds a masters degree and operates his own security company after retiring from law enforcement, said he and his wife, who holds a doctorate, paid for their education by working, earning scholarships and entering fields that offer loan assistance in return for employment.
“We both paid for ourselves to go through, you can do it, it is done, it builds up character, builds up self worth, and everything like that,” he said. “And so every time you do a handout – and I know a lot of people will say it’s not a handout, because they’re going to take that same money and put into the economy and all that stuff, but no – when you start bailing out people left and right, it makes accountability go away. Your choices have consequences.”
Cy Wood, a retired newspaper editor and publisher, told pollsters he strongly supports the plan. He said the current higher education system makes it impossible for lower and middle class children to get ahead.
Wood said when he started school in 1969, tuition was $100. When he graduated four years later, it was $150. His parents paid his way through college while he helped out by working. He said he and his wife were able to pay for their two children to go to college.
“But there are tens of millions of families that aren’t as fortunate. And I think it’s good that somebody is trying to address the inequities in our economic situation and forgiving student debt. And I don’t care if there are lawyers out there, doctors out there that are getting $10,000 to relieve their debt load. That’s fine. They are fortunate that they have a government that cares about them.”
A majority of Georgians across income levels either strongly or somewhat support the debt relief plan. Those who make between $25,000 and $50,000 are the most enthusiastic, and that group may capture graduates who are making enough to survive but struggling with their debt.
Georgians who have gone to college are also more likely to support the plan. Those with high school diplomas or less are the least likely, with 45.9% expressing some measure of discontent with the relief package and 45.1% approving with 9% undecided.
|Total||High school or less||Some college||BA/graduate|
Party affiliation is a better predictor of one’s feelings on Biden’s plan than educational attainment or income level, with 93.9% of Democrats strongly or somewhat in favor and 73.2% of Republicans strongly or somewhat opposed.
Part of the Republican opposition is ideological, but the issue has come to represent the omnipresent American cultural divide.
“It’s become a Republican talking point, this opposition to it,” Bullock said. “And part of it is because it was done by Joe Biden. If Joe Biden did it, then in Republican eyes, it’s a bad thing. Also, look at where Republicans are drawing a lot of support, non college-educated, blue collar workers. And this poll also shows, for non-college folks, ‘I’m not getting any benefit from this.’ Indeed, they’re having to pay somebody else’s college debt. So in that sense, the Republicans are in line with where a chunk of their voters are.”
Some Democrats including Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock have called for the Biden administration to go further, forgiving up to $50,000 in federal student loans.
With strong feelings on both sides of the issue, debt holders and future college students can expect talk of loan forgiveness to continue in Washington.
“There may be pressure to increase the amount covered, $50,000 perhaps, or something like that,” Bullock said. “It’s a consideration, I think, that the motivation for Biden doing it and doing it when he did is this was one of his campaign promises. So we have heard that some share of his supporters in 2020, if they’re disappointed in what he’s done as president, this would be something he could point at and say ‘I am doing something for you.’”
Click the PDF below to see the full results of the Georgia News Collaborative survey, including data on the state’s top races and voter opinions on hot-button issues like abortion and gun control.GA News Poll Results_October 2022
Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.
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