Americans don’t trust the federal government, but they want it to spend more on student aid

In a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, 71 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the direction of the country; 41 percent responded “very dissatisfied.” Furthermore, 76 percent of respondents were either angry or dissatisfied with the federal government specifically. Just 2 percent responded that they were “enthusiastic” about the federal government; 2 percent also responded that they were “very satisfied” with the country’s direction. In keeping with these results, 2 percent said they trust the government “almost all the time,” while 85 percent answered that they trust the government sometimes or “hardly ever.”

Respondents leaned a little bit more Democratic than Republican, but not enough to explain the next bit: By a 61 percent to 34 percent margin, poll respondents supported “major new spending by the federal government” to aid public university students in their tuition payments.

Regardless of party, it’s distressing to hear this. While Americans are rightly angry, distrustful, and dissatisfied with their dear leaders in Washington, they apparently don’t see a contradiction in giving more power to an activist federal government–one that they say disappoints and angers them–to spend away the nation’s problems. True, it is likely that many are angry at the lack of federal action, but it is not as if the government has been quiet on student aid. The president has expanded Pell, expanded a federal student loan program, punished “predatory” lenders and for-profit colleges, and created a consumer tool intended to hold colleges accountable for student outcomes. Income-based repayment plans are easier to sign up for than ever. There have now been 50 years of ever-increasing interventions into the student loan market, one so fraught with intervention that it’s hardly deserving of the name. Most high school graduates now attend college, but they do so at gargantuan costs to themselves and their neighbors, and those who make it to graduation get less for their money than they used to, both in quality of education and return on investment. (Admittedly, studies show that college degree holders earn more than non-degree holders, but those studies consistently tell a one-sided story.)

Most people don’t keep up with the specifics of government policy, so maybe all this poll question tells us is how Americans react to the news (see various Democrats’ foolish proposals for free college or debt-free college) or how good the government’s public relations department is. The survey overall, however, reveals that no matter how much people claim to oppose the federal government, they accept that the federal government should act. Free marketeers and constitutionalists have not succeeded in educating the public on the legal, economic and moral reasons why it’s a bad idea for even more government student aid activism.

Harry Painter

Harry Painter writes for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.