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What Obama gets wrong about the politics of student loan debt

- March 19, 2015

President Obama speaks to students and staff at the Georgia Institute of Technology on March 10 about access to quality higher education. The Obama administration wants to create a “Student Aid Bill of Rights” to help student loan borrowers. (Eril S. Lesser)
President Obama recently unveiled the Student Aid Bill of Rights, which declares that every student has the right to a high-quality, affordable education. The goal, he explained, is for this “simple organizing principle” to spur “a conversation to get more folks engaged,” especially young people directly affected:

 [W]e’ve got to mobilize the entire nation to make [it] happen. And it’s going to start with the students themselves, because … if you’re not getting mobilized, then folks aren’t going to help you … especially once you graduate and you start having to write those checks.”

Underlying his remarks are two very common ideas. One is that this issue would spur young people with student loans to become politically active – joining organizations, contacting lawmakers, attending meetings, chipping in a few bucks, and so on – precisely because they are directly impacted.
The second idea is that political rhetoric focusing on people’s personal concerns is, as a general matter, highly effective at motivating them to get involved.
My research calls both of these ideas into question. By reminding young people about their financial constraints, rhetoric about student loan debt should actually diminish their willingness to spend money or time on politics. Indeed, Obama’s speech is an example of “self-undermining rhetoric” because it brings to mind thoughts that undercut the very goal it is trying to achieve.
This isn’t because young people are unwilling to be politically active. They can be willing, but not when reminded of financial constraints that they face.
To see why this is true, I recruited a group of students on a college campus and then randomly assigned them to receive information about a real political organization. Some students just received general information about the organization, including its broad aims and some of its recent accomplishments. Another group received that same information along with more specific details about the skyrocketing price of college textbooks (which, like tuition and fees, has increased three times as fast as overall consumer prices) and the organization’s efforts to make them more affordable. All study participants were then asked if they would donate money to the organization.
Those who received the information about college textbooks were 25 percent  less likely to donate money and donated 39 percent less money than those who just received the more general information. In short, information about the cost of college demobilized them.
A third group in my study received the same general information along with specifics about an issue that did not directly refer to financial constraints: the environmental waste associated with printing large textbooks when most classes don’t use the entire book (and thus calling for more electronic textbooks). Those who received this issue information were 36 percent  more likely to donate and their average donations did not decrease at all.
What explains this pattern of results is not some general apathy among young people. Instead, it’s a combination of the rhetoric used to activate them and their personal circumstances.
In another set of experiments I found that rhetoric about the financial constraints people face also made them less likely to want to donate their time, at least if they were in the labor force. So, while current full-time students might be willing to heed Obama’s call to action on student loan debt, paradoxically that is likely to change once they graduate, get a job, and the bills come due.
The upshot of these experiments runs directly counter to Obama’s claim: when politics calls for people to spend money or time, the people directly impacted will be hardest to mobilize precisely because they are directly impacted.
Instead, it is easier to mobilize people who are concerned about the issue but not directly impacted (such as, perhaps, young people who have friends facing the issue but do not themselves have student debt). I reach a similar conclusion when looking at wider samples of American adults and focusing on other economic insecurity issues, like health care costs.
What does this mean for the politics of student debt, especially looking ahead to 2016? It’s natural for political leaders to focus the political agenda on issues that their supporters are concerned about. Coupled with the trends in the figure below, talking about student loan debt in 2016 would seem like a no-brainer for Democrats.
Levine_MonkeyCage_March2015But rhetoric that focuses on what’s personally at stake — though it can change their priorities — may also make them less likely to act on those priorities. The reasons that might lead young people to agree with Obama about student loan debt are also reasons why they won’t heed his call for political mobilization.
Adam Seth Levine, an assistant professor of government at Cornell, is the author of “American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction.”