1 in 4 Americans Say Students to Blame for Debt Crisis

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Student loan debt has transformed into a nationwide crisis in the past decade. In April of 2019, the total student loan debt in America surpassed $1.6 trillion, a figure that more than tripled since it first hit $500 billion in 2006. 

Student loan debt is half a trillion dollars higher than the current cumulative credit card debt.

Opinions are divided on the student crisis, specifically when it comes to who is at fault and what the solution should be. Some lawmakers have pushed for the rollback of student loan availability, advocating instead for more personal responsibility by students and their parents. 

Those on the other side of the issue claim instead that larger systemic players are at fault, like big banks, lenders and universities, as well as the government for not introducing stronger student loan regulations.

To learn more about how Americans feel about the student loan crisis, we asked 1,000 people who they believe is responsible for high student debt and what the best solution to the nationwide crisis would be

Survey results: who is most to blame for high student loan debt?

Older Americans Believe Students Are to Blame for Skyrocketing College Loans

Respondents were asked to choose whether they believe students, lenders, the government, colleges or parents are most responsible for high student loan debt. Overall, a third of respondents blamed the government

However, age differences resulted in varying opinions.

While 40 percent of younger participants blamed the government for student debt, one third of respondents 45 and older said they believed students were most at fault for contributing to skyrocketing college debt. 

Survey results by age: who is most to blame for high student loan debt?

But What Do Economists Think?

While economists are divided on who to blame for the student loan crisis, nearly all experts agree the primary fault does not lie with student borrowers. 

Some instead blame colleges, pointing to tuition rates at private institutions that skyrocketed from $17k in 1988 to nearly $36k three decades later. 

Others blame the government for failing to regulate interest rates, which hit their peak since 2009 at five percent in 2018. They also blame a lack of oversight that the Department of Education said has resulted in rampant noncompliance offenses by federal loan servicers. 

Of the choices offered to survey participants, blame for students’ parents was the least popular selection across every age group, amassing just seven percent of the overall vote.

1 in 4 Senior Citizens Think Debt Crisis Could be Solved if Graduates “Just Worked Harder”

When asked to choose from a variety of popular loan crisis solutions, many respondents chose systemic policy changes like free public college (22 percent), lower student loan interest (21 percent) and increased availability of loan forgiveness opportunities in exchange for public service work (15 percent).

Survey results: which of these is the best solution to the student loan debt crisis?

However, nearly a quarter of respondents 65 and older said the best solution to the $1.6 trillion loan crisis is for graduates to just work harder to pay off their debts

Even across a more balanced demographic split between older and younger generations, nearly 20 percent of Americans over 45 still say better graduate work ethic would solve the student debt problem compared to just 10 percent of those 18-44.

Survey results by age: which of these is the best solution to the student loan debt crisis?

These results support what many say is a growing lack of understanding among older Americans as to how hard college students already work. 

While many believe the average student is young, affluent and living off of parental support, a 2018 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that to be untrue for more than half of college students

The IWPR found that among college students: 

  • 14 percent are single parents
  • 30 percent live at or below the poverty line
  • 38 percent receive zero financial contribution to their tuition from family
  • Nearly half work at least 20 hours per week

What’s more, a 2018 study by Higher Learning Advocates found that most senior citizens are unaware of these statistics. In fact, seniors hold the most inaccurate perceptions of student poverty levels, age, and financial independence.

So while seniors may believe the student debt issue is simply a problem of lazy students, the more likely reality is that older generations just don’t know how hard students work.

Across Age Groups, Americans Support Free Public College

Among the general survey population, just over one in five (22 percent) said that free public college is the best solution to the college debt crisis. In every age category except for 65 and older, free public college was the first or second most popular response, with over 20 percent of responses in each group.

Survey results: what percent believe free public college is the best solution to the student debt crisis?

This statistic comes at a key point in American politics, as nine of the Democratic candidates for the 2020 Presidential election have stated they intend to introduce legislation to provide publicly funded higher education. Given how prominently student loan debt features in the 2020 campaign cycle, public opinion on educational debt could have a hand in determining the outcome of the election.

It also comes at a key point in American economics, as researchers predict that the United States will experience a shortfall of five million college-educated workers by 2020. It will be impossible to fill that gap in graduates without better access to affordable education financing.

There’s no doubt that the student debt crisis is a complicated topic with no clear solution. Regardless, public opinion on the issue will undoubtedly shape the decisions and elections that will determine relevant political and economic outcomes in the coming years. 

However, many people cannot afford to wait for such changes in order to get a handle on their student loans, which is where various resources and tools provide assistance to keep overwhelming debt at bay. 


This study was conducted using Google Surveys. Each sample consists of no less than 1,000 completed answers. Post-stratification weighting has been applied to ensure accurate and reliable representation of the total U.S. population ages 18 and older. The survey ran online July 2019.

Learn more about Google Surveys’ methodology.

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