Deservingness and the Politics of Student Debt Relief

By Mallory E. SoRelle, Duke University and Serena Laws, Trinity College

As the pandemic accelerated calls to provide relief to millions of student borrowers, President Biden announced executive action to cancel $10,000 of student debt for most federal student loan holders. Both prior to and following his announcement, policymakers have debated the merits and details of student debt relief, focusing particular attention on the perceived deservingness of student loan borrowers. But we have little systematic evidence about how the public evaluates borrower deservingness, or whether elite arguments framing support or opposition to debt relief in terms of deservingness influence public preferences for student debt cancellation. We employ original conjoint and framing experiments conducted just prior to Biden’s announcement to explore each query. We find that, while certain borrower characteristics indicating need (e.g., amount of debt), responsibility for debt (e.g., type of institution attended), and reciprocity (e.g., time in repayment) can influence people’s evaluations of whether borrowers deserve debt relief, those results may not translate to broader deservingness arguments for or against student debt cancellation in a clear manner. Ultimately, our results shed light on a timely policy issue, while extending scholarly understandings of deservingness for a critical and understudied aspect of the American welfare state.


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