By Jillian Berman
With about six weeks left in her tenure, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made her feelings clear on proposals floated by the incoming Biden administration to address college affordability and student debt.
Speaking at a virtual conference hosted by Federal Student Aid, the unit of the Department of Education that manages the federal student loan program, DeVos criticized politicians who “advance the truly insidious notion of government gift giving.”
“We’ve heard shrill calls to ‘cancel,’ to ‘forgive,’ to ‘make it all free,’” DeVos said, according to prepared remarks. “Any innocuous label out there can’t obfuscate what it really is: wrong.”
Her comments come as proposals to cancel some student debt have gained traction over the past few months. President-elect Joe Biden said on the campaign trail that he would discharge $10,000 in student loans per borrower as part of a coronavirus relief measure. Meanwhile, activists and mainstream Democratic politicians have urged him to do more. In September, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer urged the next president to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt immediately.
Calls to cancel at least some student debt have grown over the past few years, even making an appearance in the Democratic primary for president. But they gained new energy after Biden was elected, given that some — including Schumer and Warren — argue that the president could cancel the debt without Congress.
There’s no doubt that another plank of Biden’s plan for college affordability — making community college free and four-year public college free for some families — would require Congressional approval. DeVos had a message for any lawmakers considering those types of proposals as well.
“The campaign for ‘free college’ is a matter of total government control,” DeVos said. “Make no mistake: it is a socialist takeover of higher education.”
Most free college proposals, including Biden’s, do rely on an increased role for the federal government in funding public colleges. These plans would have the federal government provide funding to states in exchange for a commitment from public colleges to not charge tuition to all students, or at least a certain subset.
For supporters of these proposals, the increased role of the federal government in higher education funding is considered a good thing. Part of the reason tuition at public schools has grown over the past several years is because states have pulled back on funding their higher education institutions. The pandemic-induced economic downturn, which is squeezing state budgets, means those trends are only likely to continue.
In addition, because of the revenue pressure the pandemic has placed on colleges, at least some experts believe institutions would be willing to make a deal — agreeing to whatever provisions the federal government requires — in order to get more funding.
DeVos’s speech highlighted just some of the many ways that the incoming administration will likely differ in its approach to college affordability and student loans from the previous one. Experts expect the Biden-era Department of Education and CFPB to take a more aggressive role in monitoring the student loan and for-profit college industries.
In addition, advocates — some of whom served in student loan-related positions during the Obama administration — have called on Biden’s team to streamline access to already existing student loan forgiveness programs.
In her speech, DeVos highlighted some of the ways FSA has made it easier for students to navigate the student loan system, including through a redesigned website and a mobile app, during her tenure. But she made no mention of a challenge that student loan borrowers and companies could face very soon: the resumption of loan payments after a nine-month pause.
The coronavirus student loan payment and collections freeze is scheduled to end on Dec. 31 if Congress or the president don’t take action. FSA and student loan companies have warned that they could face challenges turning the student loan system back on all at once, putting borrowers at risk of delinquency or default. Meanwhile, borrowers who haven’t seen their underlying financial circumstances change are bracing to start paying the bill.