Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, is the senior senator from Massachusetts. She has just launched DeVos Watch, a new initiative to hold the Department of Education accountable. The views expressed are her own.
Elizabeth Warren: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proven she is not working in the interests of American students
Warren is launching DeVos Watch, an online tracker to hold the Department of Education accountable for every decision it makes
Betsy DeVos recently completed her 100th day as Secretary of Education, and the resistance to her agenda has spread across this country like wildfire.
Last week, Secretary DeVos and President Trump’s Department of Education released a budget that would upend the student aid program and make it much harder for students to afford college and repay their student loans. At the same time, the head of the federal student aid office abruptly resigned amid reports of political meddling by DeVos.
With the educational and financial futures of millions of people hanging in the balance, here’s a place to start scrutinizing Secretary DeVos.
Early in the Obama administration, Congress gave full ownership of the federal student loan portfolio to the Department of Education, removing middlemen from the program and cutting out the profits that private banks skimmed off the system. This was a brave move that required standing up to some very powerful banks and private businesses that wanted to keep on skimming.
But now, years after the transition, the Department of Education often seems to ignore the original intent of this change and instead administers the trillion-dollar loan program for the financial benefit of nearly everyone except the students it is supposed to serve.
To the irritation of many in my own party, I regularly challenged the Democrat-led Department of Education to clean up its act on student loans. I pushed federal officials to tighten the spigot of federal funds that let fraudulent schools suck down billions in taxpayer dollars. I also fought to persuade the Department to cancel the loans of defrauded students, including thousands in Massachusetts. We made real progress.
When the Department failed to hold giant student loan servicer Navient accountable after the company was fined nearly $100 million by other federal law enforcement agencies for allegedly overcharging thousands of active-duty military personnel, I called them out and helped trigger an independent investigation. Those efforts ultimately helped push the secretary of education to begin refunding money to over 80,000 military borrowers and to commit to a complete overhaul of the federal contracts with student loan servicers. More progress.
These stories show that oversight matters – and, with DeVos as secretary of education, oversight now matters even more. During her confirmation hearing, Secretary DeVos made it clear that she knew very little about running the federal student aid program. In her first weeks, she assembled a team that highlighted her plans to actively undermine efforts to protect students from being cheated.
Two of Secretary DeVos’ first hires at the Department were Robert Eitel and Taylor Hansen, both with deep connections to institutions that make big money by abusing the student aid program and preying on students. Eitel was a top lawyer from a for-profit college that recently paid a more than $30 million fine to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for allegedly “deceiving students into taking out private student loans that cost more than advertised;” that for-profit college is currently under both state and federal investigation for breaking laws meant to protect students. Meanwhile, Hansen had been a top lobbyist for the entire for-profit college industry, which has paid out hundreds of millions in fines for defrauding students.
The revolving door that shuttles people between government jobs and the corporations they police is corrosive – but it is rarely this brazen. One of Secretary DeVos’ first actions on higher education was to delay a critical rule preventing fly-by-night colleges from loading students up with gigantic debts for worthless degrees, a move that directly benefited those same colleges that have paid Eitel and Hansen for years.
It also notably benefits these for-profit colleges that have been fined and have settled before, including Education Management Corp. (EDMC), which paid out $95.5 million after allegations of illegal recruitment and consumer fraud in 2015. At the time of the settlement, EDMC was a member of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which Hansen represented.
Next, DeVos reversed a policy preventing student loan debt collectors from charging sky-high fees to students desperately trying to catch up on their student loans – a policy whose loudest opponent was a major student loan debt collector that was headed by Hansen’s father.
As news stories exposed these relationships, I wrote to Secretary DeVos, citing Hansen’s and Eitel’s conflicts and the Department’s recent actions, asking for information about their roles. The day my letter arrived, Hansen resigned.
Oversight still works, but we’ve only just started. Eitel is still at the Department – now as senior counselor to the secretary. Secretary DeVos’ destructive policies on debt collection remain in place. And she recently ripped up critical reform policies that protect student loan borrowers from loan servicing companies like Navient that have demonstrated over and over their lack of concern for students. Notably, industry stocks have risen pretty much every time she has touched federal student loan policy – including her recent announcement letting servicing companies off the hook from requirements that they affirmatively reach out and try to help struggling borrowers.
Now that DeVos is responsible for appointing the next head of the trillion dollar federal student aid office, we should all be very concerned that she may pick another person who also prioritizes the student loan industry and predatory colleges above students.
That’s why today I am announcing a new project to hold Secretary DeVos’ Department of Education accountable. DeVos Watch will seek information about the Department’s actions and inactions around federal student loans and grants and highlight the findings. People can also participate directly by tracking the Department’s actions, submitting oversight suggestions or filing whistleblower tips.
Where there are reasonable answers to the issues raised, the public will benefit from hearing them. Where there are no reasonable answers, the public will see that as well. And where Secretary DeVos and her agency refuse to answer, additional tools are available to get to the truth, including Freedom of Information Act requests, public interest litigation by student advocates and state law enforcement officials and investigations by the Department’s nonpartisan Inspector General. Oversight will be a joint effort.
Accountability is about making government work for everyone. Regardless of political party, I’m hopeful that other policymakers will join me in efforts to hold the Department of Education accountable for serving our students – not the industries that make money off them. We all have an interest in a well-run, fiscally responsible, corruption-free student aid program that puts students first. That is Secretary DeVos’ job – and it is Congress’ job to make sure she does it.