Young People Care More about Student Loan Debt Than Candidates, Says Latest Survey

Election 2016
Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on August 5, 2016 at 1:02 pm
Young People Care More about Student Loan Debt Than Candidates, Says Latest Survey

Depending on whom you ask, the prospect of a Trump presidency or a Clinton one conjures up fear and dread, keeping countless adults up at night. That same concern can’t be said of college students, who are more worried about student loan debt than either.

That’s according to a new survey by, which found 82 percent of the students surveyed said they are concerned about paying back student loans. That compares with 53 percent who said they’ve been active politically this election season. What’s more, the study found 63 percent of recent college graduates carry student debt and 66 percent of enrolled students work either full-time or part-time during their college years.

The results may not come as a surprise; historically, young people have the lowest turnout rate when voting in a general election. “These voters have the lowest participation rates of any age group and part of that is because of less mobility,” says Donna Hoffman, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Northern Iowa. “They may not always understand their stake in the system,” even if student loan debt now gives them one.

Young people turned out in the primary round

To say the current election cycle is unusual would be an understatement. The rise of Donald Trump and the Bernie Sanders movement have resulted in more people, including college students, getting involved in politics. During the 2016 primaries, The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, found the percentage of people between the ages of 17 and 29 who cast a ballot was in line or greater than in 2008 when President Barack Obama ran against Clinton for the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, CIRCLE reported a big uptick in votes cast in primaries or caucuses when compared with 2008.

Whether or not that increased engagement on the part of college students translates into increased voter turnout in November remains to be seen. The one candidate most college students got fired up about, Sanders, has exited the race, throwing his support behind rival Clinton.

“The big question going into the general election now that Sanders lost the nomination to Clinton is what number of those 18 to 29 who supported him disproportionately will not vote,” Hoffman says. “There’s also danger that their disillusionment because their candidate lost could result in them going to a third party candidate.”  She points to the Green Party and the Libertarian Party as two that often appeal to younger voters.  Another scenario: a protest vote in which Sanders supporters throw their weight behind Trump. “A disaffected voter, whatever age, is a disaffected voter,” Hoffman says.

Student loan debt could spark better voter turnout

A Sanders nomination would have undoubtedly fired up young voters, likely setting records in terms of turnout. But in order for that to happen without him, there is going to have to be an issue that college students are passionate about, and student loan debt may very well be it. There’s no question it’s a huge problem in the country and solving it was a big part of the Sanders appeal.

If another candidate can spark the imaginations of the young voter between now and November, it could very well be a game changer.  “In the last couple of years, student debt has come to the forefront and is a bigger issue,” says Timothy Hagle, associate professor at the University of Iowa.  “There’s always been debt in one form or the other, but the cost is rising much faster than the ability for lots of them to pay for it. Bernie has been talking about free college and even got Clinton to pull over into that lane.”

Disengagement on the part of college students and young people in general when it comes to the presidential election is well-documented. Even if the same scenario plays out in 2016, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, says it’s not a bad thing.

That’s because engagement on the part of college students is trending higher and is evident in the rise of Sanders and the increased activism on college campuses. That increased engagement, Kawashima-Ginsberg argues, is more impactful because students are playing more of a role in shaping their parties’ platforms in the next five to 10 years.  “Turnout is almost unimportant. It is how engaged young people are in the conversation and how they are shaping the platform,” she says. “Voting is almost the icing on the cake.”

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for,,,, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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