Case Study: Student Loan Cancellation
Can Democrats’ public statements about student loan cancellation affect public opinion?
We wanted to know if Democrats’ statements could increase support for student loan cancellation, as well as whether they cause people to trust Democrats more on the issue of college affordability, and, lastly, whether they affect people’s motivation to vote in November.
We ran a Rapid Message Test that presented each respondent with a single public statement made by one of several prominent Democrats (or a simple placebo message), and asked them followup questions on the topic. The test was run among a sample of the US adult population on Wednesday, September 7, 2022, and collected over 1,000 responses in just a few hours.
President Biden, Senator Warnock, Senator Warren, and Senators Warren and Schumer each made statements about student loan cancellation after President Biden’s executive action. We excerpted from each, to generate messages with themes that differed from each other. Biden’s focused on people striving for a middle-class life and starting businesses, Warnock’s shared his personal connection with student loans, Warren’s focused on the many different kinds of workers who benefit from the new policy, and the Warren/Schumer message focused on how big and historic the President’s action was.
Full messages are in the appendix.
While none of the messages increased support for the policy to cancel student loans, President Biden’s message persuaded people that Democrats were the party to trust on the issue of student debt and college affordability.
Biden’s message was especially effective with women, people with lower income, rural residents and moderates.
We also tested the messages’ effect on motivation to vote in November, and while three of the messages had no effect, Senator Warren’s message caused fewer people to say they were “very motivated” to vote in 2022. The analysis shows that this message demotivates both Democrats and Republicans. Why might this message have reduced vote motivation? We’re open to your theories! Feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your ideas.
President Biden’s full remarks cover a lot of ground, and many different themes. Was the message we tested effective simply because it came from Biden, or was the language we excerpted especially effective?
A followup test could measure the effects of several different excerpts from Biden’s speech, which could show us which theme is most effective, or we could end up finding that they’re all similarly effective, and the messenger himself is the key persuasive element.
Appendix: Message Text
Biden: I made a commitment
President Biden issued the following statement, announcing that the White House will cancel $10,000 of student loans for Americans earning under $125,000, and cancel $20,000 for Pell grant recipients.
“The burden of college debt is so heavy that even if you graduate, you may not have access to the middle-class life that the college degree once provided.”
“A lot of folks are even putting off starting families because of the cost. And the dream of starting or owning your business is just way off in the distance with the debt that so many are saddled with.”
“When I campaigned for President, I made a commitment that we’d provide student debt relief. And I’m honoring that commitment today.”
Warnock: Personal for me
U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) issued the statement below, following the White House’s announcement that President Biden will cancel $10,000 of student loans for Americans earning under $125,000, and cancel $20,000 for Pell grant recipients.
“This is personal for me because I’m a product of good public policy. I attended college on Pell grants and student scholarships, and I know the doors that higher education can open–when you can afford it. This announcement will help many Georgians, some of whom have been struggling with debt for decades, get their financial footing, and it will help keep our economy strong and growing,” said Senator Reverend Warnock.
Warren: Day of joy and relief
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) issued the statement below, following the White House’s announcement that President Biden will cancel $10,000 of student loans for Americans earning under $125,000, and cancel $20,000 for Pell grant recipients.
“Today is a day of joy and relief because President Biden has canceled a big chunk of student debt for as many as 43 million Americans. The President has taken a powerful step to help rebuild the middle class.”
“Student loan debt has held millions of Americans back from starting a family, buying a home, saving for retirement, or creating their own businesses. With the President’s action, millions of workers–educators; municipal employees; auto workers; food and retail workers; flight attendants; medical workers; care workers; and many more–will breathe a little easier knowing this burden will be lifted.”
Schumer/Warren: Flick of a pen
U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued the joint statement below, following the White House’s announcement that President Biden will cancel $10,000 of student loans for Americans earning under $125,000, and cancel $20,000 for Pell grant recipients.
“With the flick of a pen, President Biden has taken a giant step forward in addressing the student debt crisis by canceling significant amounts of student debt for millions of borrowers. The positive impacts of this move will be felt by families across the country, particularly in minority communities, and is the single most effective action that the President can take on his own to help working families and the economy.”
“No president or Congress has done more to relieve the burden of student debt and help millions of Americans make ends meet. Make no mistake, the work – our work – will continue as we pursue every available path to address the student debt crisis, help close the racial wealth gap for borrowers, and keep our economy growing.”