How Betsy DeVos’s friendliness to for-profit schools stands to put a generation at risk
The grinch who stole debt forgiveness
“The U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general issued a report this week urging the Office of Federal Student Aid to take action on tens of thousands of debt forgiveness applications languishing at the agency.
The report puts a fine point on the criticism student advocates and liberal lawmakers have directed toward Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for refusing to process debt relief claims submitted by federal student loan borrowers who were defrauded by their colleges.”
—Washington Post, “Education inspector general calls on agency to process backlog of student debt relief claims,” 12/12/17
Coming up on the year anniversary of her narrow confirmation as U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s vision for the nation’s students (and graduates) is beginning to come into focus.
As the Washington Post reported, the number of stalled student debt forgiveness applications at the Office of Federal Student Aid has shot up since President Trump’s inauguration, and the beginning of DeVos’s tenure. And while her crusade for charter schools and voucher systems has yet to influence policy at the federal level, DeVosian pro-privatization sentiment—she calls it “school choice”—may soon have several footholds: in tax reform legislation, via a provision allowing 529 savings accounts to be used for private- and home-schooling expenses; and the for-now tentative, Republican-driven reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (known as the PROSPER Act) that would roll back regulations and make federal money flow toward for-profit institutions.
But this latest uh-oh exacerbates a crisis that was present long before regime change last January. Driven by the rising costs of college, student debt has ballooned over the past generation, topping $1.4 trillion in 2017. A major culprit in the crisis? Those for-profit colleges that DeVos and her backers are cozy with. (Not only has the highest education official in the land delayed the implementation of Obama-era regulations aimed at for-profits, she’s named former and current for-profit execs to top departmental positions.) According to ForProfitU.org, 96% of for-profit college students take out loans, and in much higher amounts than their counterparts at public and private not-for-profit schools.
The Office of Federal Student Aid is supposed to protect students from this type of exploitation—and up until January 20, 2017, it was doing just that. In the last sixth months of the Obama administration, of nearly 50,000 applications for debt forgiveness from borrowers who felt they had been misled by a for-profit school, about 60% were approved, with the rest remaining to be processed. Since Inauguration Day, about 26,000 additional applications have come to the FSA.
Not one has been approved.
Department officials chalk it up to the ongoing administrative transition, as the Post notes, but it seems clear that under DeVos’s leadership, for-profit schools are given a conspiratorial “don’t worry, we’ve got your back” wink from the very institution that should be policing them.
Senator Patty Murray of Washington has spoken out against DeVos’s negligence here, stating that the Education Secretary is effectively leaving students “nowhere to turn.” Her Democratic colleagues on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have been prominent advocates for fairness in higher education—and if you see your Senator’s name on the list, it might be worth adding one more thing on the agenda for your calls to make to Washington.
One more thing: If this news comes at a time when you and your kid (or even you, if you’re going back to school) in the thick of the college application cycle, don’t let it dissuade you. Despite declining support in some partisan circles, a college degree remains a huge factor in social mobility: You’ll earn $1 million more over your lifetime than if you stop at the high school diploma. If you’re even considering the for-profit path, I’d strongly suggest doing some research and exploring other options, from affordable community colleges to scholarships and grants that can make attending even the priciest of elite private schools feasible. This applies doubly if you’re a veteran or a member of a military family who has been aggressively recruited by for-profits.
Based on DeVos’s inaction, it appears the current Secretary of Education doesn’t want you to do your homework. And that deserves a failing grade.