Photos: AP, compilation by Chris Nicholls

College student loan debt looms over the November presidential election, and the outcome could be influenced by the candidates’ stance on the issue.

In a survey released Wednesday by DirectTextbook.com, a textbook price comparison service, 83% of college students and 65% of parents said changes should be made to reduce the burden of student debt.

Seventy-eight percent of college students and 92% of parents said they planned to vote in November, and 90% of voting students and 84% of voting parents indicated that the candidates’ positions on student debt would influence whom they voted for.

DirectTextbook conducted the online survey in May of some 500 college students and parents in the U.S.

How seriously do parents and students consider college debt? Survey respondents thought the issue was equally or more important than several others that figure prominently in the current election cycle:

  • Unemployment — students, 75%; parents 58%
  • Immigration — students, 66%; parents, 60%
  • Gun control — students, 60%; parents, 60%
  • Climate change — students, 60%; parents, 68%
  • Health care — students, 54%; parents 43%

Another indication of how serious the issue has become: Parents are so focused on their children’s receiving higher education that they are willing to assume debt and forgo saving for their own retirement to pay for it — and not only in the U.S., a recent poll by HSBC found.

Dealing With Debt

The media frequently refer to college student loan debt as a “crisis.” Few would dispute this.

DirectTextbook cited several figures that put the matter in perspective.

At present, national student debt stands at more than $1 trillion, and the average college student loan burden is $35,000.

Tuition costs are galloping ahead at twice the rate of inflation.

Three million parents across the country collectively shoulder $71 billion in student debt, and Americans 40 and older are responsible for 35% of the national student debt.

Researchers asked survey participants which strategies for reducing the student debt burden they would for favor.

Seventy percent of students and 51% of parents opted for income-based repayment.

Nearly as big a proportion of students favored increased government aid, but only 38% of parents agreed. And twice as many students as parents said they would like student loan forgiveness.

In addition, 18% of students and 27% of parents preferred total individual accountability, while just 5% of students and 8% of parents said no changes should be made to the current system.

The Presidential Election

Time will tell to what extent student debt affected the 2016 presidential election. In the meantime, DirectTextbook looked at demographics and the last presidential election to infer what could happen.

The collective student body in the U.S. numbers 21 million. In the 2012 election, just 38% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted — the lowest turnout of any demographic and a figure than had many analysts wringing their hands. (That showing is down from 2008, when 44% of that age group voted.)

Still, if the same 38% proportion of students vote in November, that would be 8 million ballots cast. DirectTextbook said its poll showed that 71% of those would be based on the student debt issue — 5.7 million voters demanding reduced student debt. Parents similarly influenced would significantly increase that number. (Since college students have been shown to vote at higher rates than the general population, that number is likely even higher.)

Could those votes swing the election? DirectTextbook pointed out that Barack Obama won the 2012 popular vote count by a margin of only 4.9 million votes.

This scenario, of course, ignores the fact that many Americans who go to the polls are not single-issue voters. As important as student loan debt is for many, other issues weigh at least as heavily — think the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, as the poll indicates, parents and students expect strong leadership on this issue by the next president.