Heavens to Betsy — we now have a Secretary of Education who has no idea how much student loan debt the federal government holds. Or, apparently, what to do about it.
“The amount of student debt — over $1.3 trillion right now up, almost 1000 percent in the last eight years — that’s a very serious issue,” she said in her confirmation hearing last month. Asked for clarification by a flummoxed Senator Al Franken, she stood by the figure: “980 percent in the last eight years.”
But as Franken pointed out, student loan debt doubled from $659 billion to nearly $1.4 trillion. It didn’t increase ninefold. If DeVos were correct, total outstanding student loan debt would be more than triple what Americans owe on their cars ($1.1 trillion) and credit cards ($747 billion) combined. We we would have student loan debt in the same ballpark as mortgages ($8.4 trillion).
That staggeringly poor command of the facts didn’t stop her from getting the job. (Nor did her comment that grizzly bears are a valid reason to have guns in schools.) But she sure came close to flunking out, winning by the smallest possible margin — never before has the vice president had to break a Congressional tie to approve a cabinet nominee.
Maybe, math aside, that’s because there seems to be something for Americans of all stripes to hate about Betsy DeVos.
Already a caricature
It seems, like most things about the Trump administration, everybody has already made up their mind about our new Education Secretary. It’s hard to blame them, too.
As I read through all kinds of DeVos coverage trying to figure out what she thinks about student loan debt — the main issue I care about — there were a pretty common set of facts repeated across everything. You probably heard most of them, regardless of your political reading habits. Even if you only read a single story. Stop me if you knew DeVos…
- is a billionaire
- has called public education a “monopoly” and “a dead end”
- spent millions over 20 years lobbying for states to spend taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools
- never attended public school or sent her kids there
- was never a teacher or school administrator
- attended a Christian private school and college
- Supported Jeb Bush (who also loooooves charter schools, despite their struggles in his home state of Florida)
- Has made (with her husband) more than $47 million in campaign donations in the past 17 years
- supported Common Core standards
What struck me was that pretty much everyone was complaining. Lots of liberal groups, sure. LGBT and civil rights activists because of donations she made to groups that supported, among many other crazy things, gay conversion therapy. Public school teachers and teachers’ unions because she wants to funnel money from public schools to public charters, virtual schools, and any other new education idea that comes out. (She said during a speech at SXSWedu in 2015 that she wants to unleash the Apples and Amazons of “the education industry.”)
But also a lot of people on the right: rural opponents of Common Core standards, and even some charter school advocates because of how they feel she flubbed Michigan’s charter rollout. Breitbart, of all places, had multiple stories critical of DeVos, like this and this.
The story seems to be that she’s hellbent on eradicating public schools while simultaneously enforcing Common Core. That there’s not much she cares about beyond K-12, and we should be glad she knows nothing about higher education. Neglect would be a mercy.
But that doesn’t seem right at all, especially when I looked at what actually came out of her confirmation hearings.
Review and adhere
Judging by her responses to nearly 140 written questions from Senator Patty Murray, Betsy DeVos thinks there are just two responsibilities in her new job: Follow the law, and read all of the Education Department’s rules and policies to make sure they also follow the law.
Time after time, she evaded very specific questions with a generic response to review things and either let states make decisions or work with Congress to make sure she “adhered to the law.” She rarely broke out of this mold, often copying and pasting portions of her previous answers.
On the whole, her response makes her sound like someone who will respect civil rights (even if she won’t call out Donald Trump for not doing the same) but who really doesn’t understand much of what the Education Department does — especially where higher education and student loans are concerned. Here’s what I took away, some of which surprised me…
- She doesn’t plan to lobby for or against Common Core because she feels state should set testing standards and the Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits her from supporting standards.
- She named exactly zero regulations she would seek to modify or change. “I will carefully review all existing regulations to ensure they adhere to the law,” she wrote.
- While she didn’t offer any proposals for adult education, she cited experience mentoring students including a single working mother who was pursuing her GED. “Her experience made me realize how difficult the system made this. Many courses were only available during routine business houses, creating an additional hardship for her and her family.”
- DeVos refused to answer when asked specifically whether she would commit to federal data collection linking charter schools to the businesses that run them: “I will review these efforts and determine what is necessary.”
- But she does at least pay lip service to accountability: “Unlike other public schools, charter schools can — and should — be closed when they fail to the meet the obligations outlined in their charters.”
- She supports women and minorities in science: “A strong pipeline of students interested in pursuing STEM careers is important to our nation’s success. This strong pipeline would not be complete if we do not work to dramatically increase the number of girls and minorities who pursue STEM careers. I will work closely with other agencies, including the NSF, to improve coordiation of STEM education and research initiatives and to highlight best practices related to engaging more girls and minorities in these fields of study.”
- DeVos was evasive when asked why funding should be taken away from public schools with financially struggling students and given to charter schools with students who aren’t struggling and aren’t getting demonstrably better results.
- Confronted with nearly two dozen examples of for-profit colleges abusing the system — with everything from altering failing grades and lying about job placement rates to hiring strippers to recruit students — DeVos said, “Fraud should never be tolerated. Period. Bad actors clearly exist in both public and nonpublic institutions.” This was copy-pasted into several later answers.
- She thinks the student loan repayment data sucks: “I believe students and parents need reliable information and transparency about student loans, default rates, and repayment rates to make informed choices. We, as a country, have simply not done a good job of giving students and their families the best possible information upon which to base their choices.” But she doesn’t say how she would do better on that or on servicing student loans.
- She was wishy-washy on involving private banks in student loans again: “The U.S. Department of Education is now one of the country’s largest banks. I think we must look carefully at how the direct loan program is functioning. A lot has changed since 2008. I think the law needs to be updated to reflect those changed and we need to think more innovatively about how we help students finance their postsecondary education.”
- Asked how she would collaborate with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which just sued the country’s largest student loan servicer) on loan servicing issues, she only mentioned ensuring students get transparent data.
- She said she wants to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to make sure applying for money is not an excuse to skip college.
- Asked how she would reduce the “outsized number of defaulters coming from for-profit colleges” she only said she would work with Congress.
- She does not believe for-profit schools make decisions differently, or treat students differently, than public colleges do.
- Asked about Trump University, a joke of a “school” that forced Trump into a $25 million fraud settlement before he became president, DeVos said it would not fall under her jurisdiction because it didn’t get any federal aid and was not an accredited school.
- Asked about insane textbook prices, she merely said she would work with Congress.
- She wants Trump to continue support of historically black colleges and universities.
- She agrees college costs too much: “I think we can all agree the growing amount of student debt in America is a serious challenge. For too many Americans, higher education has become unaffordable and disconnected from the nation’s economic realities. There is no magic wand to make the debt go away, but we do need to act.”
- …but has few ideas on fixing it. She reiterated support for trade and vocational schools, and community college, and said that good jobs and good information about the costs of college are “one of the best ways to address this issue.”
- Two ideas she doesn’t like are making things free and forgiving debt. “Calls for free college and debt elimination are in stark contrast to an approach that seeks to address the core challenges in higher education.”
- Asked if she would protect the public service loan forgiveness program, DeVos merely says she would follow the law.
- She kind of likes the student loan repayment options: “I look forward to working with Congress on ways to ensure that borrowers of federal student loans continue to have manageable repayment options that are simple and easy to understand.” Maybe I panicked over nothing.
- If things do change, she won’t pull the rug from under current borrowers: “Students deserve certainty and an understanding of the terms and conditions of their loans.”
- She had no answer for what a parent should do if a private school rejects their child for admission.
- There will be no DeVoscare, meaning she doesn’t want to nationally force parents to sign up for school vouchers. “I do not and will not advocate for any federal mandates requiring vouchers. States should determine the mechanism of choice, if any.”
The bottom line to me is that Betsy DeVos doesn’t have a handle on what she can do, in part because Donald Trump and Congress don’t have a handle on what they can do. But she’s far more humble, and far less of a bully about it, than Trump.
Reading her answers about immigrant, disabled, homeless, and LGBT students, among other things, actually gave me some sympathy for her position. Although I still think she’s horribly unqualified for the job, I don’t doubt her heart is in the right place.
Unfortunately, the education policy that will affect American finances is going to come from other places. It’s going to be shaped by Trump’s budget and deregulation push including Jerry L. Falwell Jr.’s task force on “reducing federal overreach”, and by how Congress restructures the major education laws, the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Higher Education Act.
What DeVos is signaling, both through her ignorance and her faith in states to set policy, is that she won’t be putting up a fight. That doesn’t make her a villain — it makes her a background character.
Which is kind of disappointing, because I really want to see Kate McKinnon as DeVos again.