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As Biden weighs loan forgiveness, Americans are more worried about college's cost

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

President Biden is inching toward an announcement on federal student loan forgiveness. Most reports say he'll probably propose what he promised during his campaign - forgiving up to $10,000 per borrower. A new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that slightly more than half of Americans support that idea, but given the choice, a far greater number would favor a different solution - that includes a majority of those with student loans. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo reports.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: When given a choice, a whopping 82% of surveyed Americans said the government's priority should be making college more affordable for current and future students, while just 16% believed forgiving student debts should take priority. Mallory Newall of Ipsos has an explanation.

MALLORY NEWALL: So what that tells me is that, while student loan forgiveness for some is seen as a good proposal and a short-term fix, where we actually need to go from here is true systematic change.

CARRILLO: The poll found strong support for making college more affordable among non-borrowers and borrowers. Fifty-nine percent of respondents with student loans said the government should focus first on fixing the system. Of course, many borrowers would love to see that debt go away.

BRIANA FORD: If I had to pick one for me today - forgive student loans.

CARRILLO: Briana Ford is 27 and lives in Columbia, S.C. She has roughly $50,000 in student loans and is now earning a graduate degree. But even she has reservations with that $10,000 promise Biden made as a candidate.

FORD: I acknowledge that just forgiving student loans without addressing the problem is like draining a tub without turning the faucet off.

CARRILLO: She says she's tried at every turn of her education to find ways around loans, but the cost of college is just too high. She'd rather not have to choose between her own debt and college access for future students.

FORD: In the reality, it isn't an either-or. Political leaders actually can do two things.

CARRILLO: Since 2020, borrowers have had a reprieve while loan payments were put on hold during the pandemic. Fifty-seven percent of borrowers in our poll say that they have not made a single payment in that time, and 20% have never made a payment on their student loans.

Morgan Downing of Washington, D.C., is among the roughly 4 million college students who graduated in spring 2020. She earned a degree in public relations and education studies from American University. She's never known the pressures of regular loan payments. She made just a couple and then stopped.

MORGAN DOWNING: After, like, the second or third payment, I was like, this is ridiculous.

CARRILLO: Downing says her undergraduate loans don't feel real, and she's waiting to see if President Biden will come through on his promise to cancel at least $10,000 in student debt per person.

DOWNING: I was excited to vote for a president that was saying I was going to clear your debt.

CARRILLO: In fact, 42% of borrowers in the NPR/Ipsos poll said that they haven't made a payment during the pause because they're hoping their debts will be forgiven. The years-long pause, for many borrowers, has had an unexpected upside. Forty-seven percent said that the freeze has improved their mental health. Mallory Newall at Ipsos says that's evident when you look at how borrowers told us they spent the money they didn't have to put towards their loans. The top three expenses in that category are essentials - food, rent and gas - paying down other debts and putting money into savings.

NEWALL: It's clear that it offered people financial freedom in some capacity. But that freedom is not really to make a big purchase like a house or a car or take a vacation. It really is about a reprieve, a little bit of breathing room in your day-to-day life.

CARRILLO: With the pause in loan payments set to expire in August and the president so far not saying much, it's yet to be seen whether Americans will get a little more breathing room or a longer-term fix.

Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.