What Students Actually Need from the Department of Education
Sec. DeVos’ testimony ignores the priorities of today’s students — here’s what they actually need.
Washington, D.C. — Moments ago, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos concluded her testimony at the Department of Education’s budget request hearing for fiscal year 2020. In her testimony, Secretary DeVos doubled down on her support for the cuts to the Department of Education included in President Trump’s budget proposal, which would harm students and the programs that help them succeed in college.
Here are some ways Secretary DeVos’ statements differed from what students need to solve the challenges they face in higher education:
What DeVos said:
In her introductory remarks, Secretary DeVos defended the $7 billion cut to the overall Department of Education budget, saying it was a decision to increase choice and freedom for students and families at every level of education.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), along with House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Ranking Member Virginia Foxx (R-NC), have come to the table this year to modernize and reform our higher education system through a bipartisan reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) that is not expected to contain cuts to higher education. Additionally, the Administration’s proposals to dramatically cut funding to higher education are expected to be rejected by bipartisan majorities in Congress in favor of the investments students need to succeed during the FY2020 appropriations process.
The proposed FY2020 Department of Education budget reflects a 12 percent cut to the Department overall and most brutally slashes funding for programs that help today’s students succeed at all levels of schooling. This budget drastically cuts or eliminates Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), subsidized loans, the Pell Grant surplus, the Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools (CCAMPIS) program, and several other programs under the guise of “freedom.” Today, the Secretary defended a vision that would leave more students in debt and our nation with fewer degrees. Students need more investment in their education, not less.
Supporting Student Parents
What DeVos said:
The Department of Education’s proposed budget cuts CCAMPIS, which makes affordable child care available to student parents on 200 campuses nationwide, by more than 66 percent from $50 million per year, to $15 million. In defense of this cut, Secretary DeVos said “we had to make many difficult decisions when making this budget, and we have continued to stay focused on the [programs that] are serving the most vulnerable students.”
In recent remarks, Senator Murray highlighted the unique needs of today’s students and how affordable, accessible childcare can make a real difference in helping student parents complete their education. The FY18/FY19 increase to CCAMPIS has allowed the program to grow from 80 to 200 campuses, serving more at-need students and their children around the country.
The Trump budget reverses the first investment Congress has made in on-campus childcare in 25 years, with no regard for the critical impact that on-campus child care has on helping student parents — who make up more than a quarter of our students — complete their education. The Secretary says she wants to serve “the most vulnerable students” but this budget leaves the more than 5,000 beneficiaries of CCAMPIS behind.
What DeVos said:
When asked about the impact of the 2020 budget on students’ ability to get relief after having been misled or defrauded by a higher education institution, the Secretary said no student should be able to make a claim if they have not truly been defrauded or if they are gainfully employed. She also supported a system of risk-sharing that would be applied to all colleges and universities, but admitted the proposal was non-specific and looked forward to working with Congress to develop parameters.
Members on both sides of the aisle agree that more oversight is needed to ensure that student and taxpayer dollars are going to institutions that produce positive outcomes for their students, but they differ significantly on how to achieve this goal. In his HEA reauthorization goals, Senator Alexander proposed an accountability metric for all programs and has signaled interest in a risk-sharing system previously, but does not argue for codifying the Borrower Defense and Gainful Employment Rules. Conversely, some Congressional Democrats would codify these rules and make other reforms to protect students from predatory actors.
Over the past two years, the DeVos Department of Education has worked to dismantle the basic consumer protections guaranteed to student borrowers through the Gainful Employment (GE) and Borrower Defense (BD) rules. Students who have been defrauded by a predatory institution should have the Department on their side, not refusing to give them relief if they’ve managed to find a job during the years-long process of fighting to get their loans discharged. In order to protect students, Congress should codify GE and BD, reinstate Pell eligibility for defrauded students, and protect borrowers and close the GI Bill loophole that leaves veterans more susceptible to the practices of predatory for-profit colleges.
We should also hold institutions accountable for the promises that they make to our most vulnerable students through a risk-sharing system that directly benefits students who have been treated poorly and supports institutions that enroll higher numbers of low-income students.
Improving Federal Work Study
What DeVos said:
Secretary DeVos said of federal work study (FWS): “The way the formula works today, very often most funds go to the most elite institutions not the ones that are serving the students with the most need. [Additionally,] work study as it’s carried out today includes… primarily on-campus programs. We have proposed to expand those options to allow students to work with… employers with whom they might eventually move into a career.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have proposed changing the funding formula for FWS to steer more aid to low-income students at schools where they are more frequently enrolled in FWS programs. They’ve also explored ways to improve the jobs available to students. However, it’s worth noting that both proposals have not cut funding to Federal Work Study while pursuing these goals.
In the 2020 budget, the Trump Administration proposed a more than 50 percent cut to the Federal Work Study program, even while touting popular and bipartisan reforms for its improvement. Making FWS more efficient and effective in helping students make money to pay for school while also gaining career-relevant experience is a popular and bipartisan proposal, but it must be rooted in ensuring robust funding for this important program.
What DeVos said:
Secretary DeVos responded to an inquiry regarding cuts to the Pell program by clarifying that the budget does not reflect a cut to the existing program, but rather a reduction to the approximately $2 billion Pell “surplus”. It is an accounting adjustment to an amount that “accrues because not enough students are taking advantage of the program,” said the Secretary. The Secretary also spoke frequently about expanding Pell to fund short-term programs.
Two weeks ago, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing where both members of Congress and the witnesses agreed that Pell Grants, which are awarded to low-income students to help cover the cost of college, need to be increased to meet the rising cost of attendance for low-income students. Proposals to expand Pell eligibility to cover short-term programs and incarcerated individuals have varying levels of bipartisan support in Congress, and could be included in HEA reauthorization.
The purchasing power of the Pell Grant covers less than 30 percent of the average four-year in-state cost of attendance today, compared to more than 70 percent in the 1970s. The Pell Grant should be indexed to inflation to keep up with the increasing costs of college.
Furthermore, eliminating the $2 billion surplus puts in jeopardy the reserve funding that is used to accommodate unanticipated influxes of students, such as in a recession or as demographic shifts cause more low-income students to enroll in college. Eliminating the surplus would put low-income students further at risk of not getting the funding they need to pay for school.
Expanding Pell to short-term programs and to incarcerated students would be beneficial expansions of the program, provided sufficient quality assurances can be made that the programs being offered in both circumstances are high quality, track with local workforce needs, and have sufficient oversight.
Reforming Student Loan Repayment
What DeVos said:
Secretary DeVos cited the $1.5 trillion in student loan debt as a critical issue for the Department and noted the Department’s proposal to streamline student loan repayment as a key factor in addressing that crisis. The Administration’s plan would consolidate income-driven repayment (IDR) plans into a single plan that would cap repayment at 12.5 percent of discretionary income.
Both House and Senate Leadership have spoken to the complexities of the current student loan repayment system. There are currently nine repayment plans a borrower can choose to repay their loans, and there is near-universal agreement among policymakers that that number should be cut to two to make repayment simpler. However, the specific terms and administration of the income-based plan is still being discussed.
Student borrowers would benefit greatly from a simplified repayment system, the ability to give multi-year consent to remain in income-based enrollment, and other consumer friendly changes.
The Administration’s IDR proposal deviates from popular existing repayment plans that would have students pay a smaller proportion of their monthly income over a longer period of time. While requiring fewer payments overall to gain forgiveness will benefit some undergraduates, raising monthly loan payments and lengthening the window for graduate loan forgiveness will erode the financial stability of other borrowers.
What the Secretary didn’t mention today is that the Administration’s simplification proposal is funded through the elimination of Public Service Loan Forgiveness as well as other important higher education programs that students use to achieve financial stability.