When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education nearly four years ago, Vice President Mike Pence broke a tie in the Senate, making her nomination for the post one of the most controversial in recent memory.
Her history of philanthropy and advocacy promoting initiatives that provide public funding for education outside of the traditional public-school system — like charter schools and voucher programs — made her a lightening rod in education policy circles.
Her tenure has been no different. Over the past four years the Department, under her direction, has made changes to policies on topics ranging from racial disparity in K-12 school discipline to the process by which scammed students can be made whole when their colleges are accused of fraud. These decisions were cheered by some and reviled by others; the Department has faced 455 lawsuits during her tenure, according to the 74, an education news outlet.
Many of these changes were large shifts, and in some cases, even reversals, of policy positions taken under the Obama administration. That dynamic, combined with President-elect Joe Biden’s proposals on the campaign trail, provide some insight into changes we can expect at the Department under the Biden administration.
Increased funding for schools at all levels
On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to increase investment in K-12 public schools to address the racial and economic inequity across and among school districts, among other priorities.
How much of the administration’s wish list they get depends on who controls the Senate, said Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights alliance convened by the National Center for Youth Law.
(Senate control will be determined by the outcome of two runoff races in Georgia in January).
Still, it’s likely that through a COVID relief package public schools, which had to increase spending to adjust to the pandemic environment and are facing budget cuts at the state level, could get some federal investment.
Rollin said there appears to be bipartisan support to increase K-12 funding at least some through a coronavirus relief package and to invest specifically in narrowing the digital divide by providing students with access to laptops and broadband.
At the college level, many public colleges are facing an “existential threat,” said Antoinette Flores, the director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. Many of their traditional revenue sources — housing, dining and tuition — have been challenged during the pandemic. In addition, squeezed states are likely to cut funding to public colleges.
Some of Biden’s most ambitious proposals — debt-free community college and free public four-year college for those from families earning $125,000 a year or less — would require congressional approval. “The real transformative change may be off the table if Congress is divided,” said Debbie Cochrane, the executive vice president at the The Institute for College Access and Success.
But there are less-ambitious proposals a Biden administration might have a chance of getting through a divided Congress that could make college more affordable. Short of fulfilling a campaign promise to double the Pell Grant, the money the federal government provides to low-income students to pay for college, the administration could try to encourage congress to change funding for the grant so it keeps pace with inflation.
In addition, a COVID relief package offers opportunities for federal lawmakers to ask certain things of states as a condition of receiving the funding, including that they maintain their level of investment in public colleges, Cochrane said.
“Baby steps are the foot in the door,” she said.
Increased focus on equity in K-12 schools
During the Trump administration, the Department of Education has reversed positions taken during the Obama administration on issues like racial disparity in school discipline, access to bathrooms for transgender students and funding for local districts to decrease segregation in their public schools.
“We saw them rescind a number of pieces of guidance that were focused on identifying disparities and then suggesting ways to take action on those,” said Terra Wallin, the associate director for P-12 accountability at EdTrust, a think tank focused on school equity.
These are all measures that a Biden administration would very likely undue, Rollin said.
The Department under the Trump administration has also changed its approach to civil-rights data collection and reporting. “That’s something that we could expect the new administration, particularly one focused on racial equity, to spend some time thinking about — what data they already have and what data could be better,” Wallin said.
A different approach to for-profit colleges
The Department of Education under the Trump administration has curtailed rules that would require for-profit colleges to prove they’re preparing students for gainful employment and provide borrowers with relief when they’ve been scammed by their schools.
In some ways, this represents a reversal in approach from the Obama administration; the Obama-era Department of Education spent years pushing through the gainful employment rule. But it took pushing from advocates and activists to convince the Obama administration to streamline the process borrowers could use to receive relief from their schools if they’ve been scammed.
“That’s really not going to be enough just to reverse course on what the Trump administration has been up to, for our clients,” said Toby Merrill, who represents former for-profit college students in litigation as the director of Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Lending.
“No administration has ever really wrapped its arms around the wrong that’s been done by this industry and the harm that people have carried for so, so long,” she said.
Merrill said she’d like to see a Biden administration wipe out these borrowers’ invalid debt as well as eliminate “the ability of these companies to create the debt in the first place.”
Biden promised on the campaign trail to make it more difficult, though not impossible, for for-profit colleges to access the federal financial-aid program.
Merrill said she’s optimistic that Senator Kamala Harris’ history with the sector — she obtained a $1.1 billion settlement with Corinthian Colleges, a defunct for-profit chain, over claims the school misled students about job placement rates and other metrics — will translate into an aggressive approach.
“She knows how bad it was and how much people need relief,” Merrill said of Harris. “I’m hopeful that she will be especially well-positioned to make sure that people get that relief.”
Making promised loan forgiveness more accessible
The possibility of widespread student-debt cancellation under a Biden administration has received a lot of attention, but even short of wiping out some debt for everyone, there are ways that a new administration could — and might — streamline access to student-loan relief that’s already available.
Right now, student-loan borrowers are entitled to have their federal student loans discharged if they attended a school when it closed or within 120 days of its closure.
The National Student Legal Defense Network, an organization founded by alums of the Obama-era Department of Education that represents student-loan borrowers in litigation, has argued that the Secretary of Education could use their authority to extend the window during which borrowers would be eligible for relief.
In one in a series of papers on what a new administration could do in its first 100 days, the organization proposed automatically discharging the debt of borrowers who attended schools that closed between Nov. 1, 2013 and July 1, 2020. That would both provide relief to thousands of borrowers and get rid of a backlog of claims seeking relief of fraudulent debt, said Aaron Ament, NSLDN’s president.
In addition, a Biden administration could make it possible for borrowers who are totally and permanently disabled to automatically access the student-loan relief they’re entitled to, Ament said.
“This is something that we’ve identified can clearly be done through administrative authority,” he said. “That’s something that we could really see in the first 100 days, or at least the announcement that they could get the ball rolling on it.”
Finally, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which allows borrowers working in public service to have their debt discharged after 10 years of payments, has been plagued with challenges. A new administration could help reform the process to make it easier for eligible borrowers to access forgiveness and to appeal when their applications have been denied, advocates say.
Seth Frotman, the executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group, said that the Biden administration, which during the campaign emphasized the importance of working families, has a “unique chance” to make public servants whole who have previously been denied access to forgiveness.
“This isn’t just going forward, this isn’t just trying to fix it for new borrowers, it’s imperative for all of the people who gave back to their communities, who gave back to their country — there’s a way for the government to fulfill their end of that bargain,” Frotman said. “There are tools on the books that the President and the Secretary have to make sure that these promises are fulfilled and that those people get the second chance that they deserve.”
Student loan servicing
The Department of Education is currently in the midst of restructuring its contract with the companies that manage the student-loan repayment system. The Obama administration had also been working on revamping the system before leaving office. It’s unclear how a Biden administration will impact that process.
In addition, it is likely that a Biden administration would rescind a memo issued by DeVos arguing that student-loan companies aren’t accountable to state law because they’re contractors of the federal government. Student-loan companies have invoked the memo in litigation over allegations they violated state laws, though the argument has largely been unsuccessful in court.
Increased focus on community colleges and HBCUs
Given Jill Biden’s position — which she intends to keep — as a community college professor and that Harris is an alum of a Historically Black College or University, Howard University, experts expect a renewed focus on these institutions, which educate a large swath of today’s college students.
It’s hard to say how that focus will translate into policy, particularly given that approval from Congress will be required for any federal funding increases. Still, stakeholders will be watching hopefully.
“It was true before the pandemic, but certainly more true given the pandemic, that issues of adequate funding and affordability of community college are paramount in the nation’s recovery from the health and economic crisis,” Cochrane said. “If the president is married to a community college professor he is unlikely to forget that.”