Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at the Virtual 2020 Federal Student Aid Training Conference

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US Department of Education

Dec. 1, 2020
Contact: Press Office
(202) 401-1576 or

Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at the Virtual 2020 Federal Student Aid Training Conference

Thank you, Mark, for that kind introduction and for your reliable leadership at FSA.

Thanks, as well, to all of you—thousands of you—who join us for this year’s conference. It’s exciting to have a record-breaking turnout, though of course I’d much rather we all be together in person.

The FSA conference this year is like none other. Navigating the COVID crisis has been challenging—on many fronts. And I’m inspired by how each of you has risen to the occasion in different ways and how you continue to put students first.

They’ve needed you, your advice, your extra support more than ever this year. So, let me thank you for doing what’s right for each of them. Let me thank you, in particular, for partnering with us to get CARES Act resources to those in greatest need.

After nearly four years on the job, I want to take a few moments to reflect on the remarkable transformations that we led at FSA in recent years, and then discuss what still needs to be done for students.

In everything we do, we begin by asking one question: “What’s the right thing to do here for students?” Then, we get to it.

From the beginning, I challenged the team at FSA to rethink how we serve students. “Rethink” means asking tough questions about what we need to do to deliver services that are on par with those of world-class financial firms and world-class customer experiences.

FSA’s infrastructure was antiquated. It begged for modernization. We needed to dramatically improve the ways we connect with students throughout all of their higher education and through the full life of their student loan repayment.

Think about where we began. On my first day in office, students couldn’t functionally access on a mobile phone.

Today, we have a mobile-responsive site and the myStudentAid mobile app. It’s transforming how students interact with FSA, and how they understand their financial obligations.

There used to be dozens of 800 numbers students had to call to get the right person. Today, there’s one.

Or, even better, students don’t have to call at all. They can just ask “Aidan.”

Then, there were multiple websites. Today, there’s one: is all students need.

We’re implementing the FUTURE Act right now. It will reduce the number of questions on the FAFSA form, improve data reliability, and end the archaic need for too many students to have piles of tax returns at the ready to complete the form.

From streamlining FAFSA to submitting payments; from seeing what a loan will cost over time to enhancing exit counseling—we are updating everything. There’s so much more in motion, and I know others will speak to that throughout the conference.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge and thank those who helped make it possible. To Jim Manning, to Wayne Johnson, to Mark Brown, to Diane Jones, and to so many more… thank you. I hope each of you in attendance will likewise share your appreciation for what these leaders have accomplished for students.

To this day, our work to bring the FSA experience into the 21st century continues. Students need more relevant and useful information so they can be more responsible consumers in the education marketplace. They need to have the best possible tools, data, advice, and support to make decisions. And then they need to understand the implications of their decisions.

To that end, students can now see how much they owe, how much they will owe, what ways they can repay what they owe, and then acknowledge all of that each year before they borrow any more money. Surprisingly, students can now do that for the first time ever. And next year, they must do so.

Institutions must also take a long look in the mirror. The higher education industry needs to deliver products that are worth the price tag. And schools have an equally important obligation at the outset to ensure their students don’t take on debt that’s unrealistic based on their future earnings potential. This is as true for so-called “non-profit” institutions as it is for any other kind of school.

A major reason we overhauled the College Scorecard was to provide more meaningful data and tools. Many of you also know just how important our updates to the College Scorecard really are.

For the first time, students can find data on debt and potential earnings by institution and by field of study. For example, if a student wants to study marketing, he or she can see what other graduates in the field are earning and how much debt they took on to earn that degree from different institutions. Students may even decide that though they find an obscure liberal arts field interesting, it may not be worth the cost.

And for the first time, the College Scorecard offers information on all types of higher education options including traditional degrees, two-year programs, certificates, graduate programs, and even apprenticeships.

You all know well that there is nothing “traditional” about students today. There are multiple pathways to success after high school. So, we helped pass the Perkins Act, we expanded apprenticeship opportunities, we launched a Federal Work-Study experiment to encourage degree-related employment opportunities, and we restored year-round Pell funding availability. We helped citizens prepare to re-enter society after incarceration by expanding Second Chance Pell opportunities—which Congress should make permanent without further delay, by the way.

We negotiated historic bipartisan agreement on new rules to increase innovation, lower costs, and strengthen accountability by reforming accreditation and other heretofore burdensome requirements and regulations.

More broadly, we got government off your backs and off students’ backs by ending the prior administration’s abusive rule-by-“Dear Colleague Letter” through more than 50 major deregulatory actions.

Importantly, we also began a couple of tough but necessary conversations about student loans.

We proposed that Congress look closely at making Federal Student Aid a stand-alone government agency, run by a professional, expert, and apolitical Board of Governors. Those conversations should continue. Students and taxpayers deserve a stronger FSA.

And we raised a warning flag about the runaway portfolio of student debt.

Today, FSA has more than $1.5 trillion in outstanding loans on the books.

Too many of those loans are either delinquent, in default, or are loans on which borrowers are paying so little, their loan balance continues to grow.

As Secretary, I’ve moved on a few tactical measures within the constraints of the law Congress has set up. And we continue to improve every part of FSA’s operations.

But politicians in Washington have thus far chosen to ignore our proposals, which they are entitled to do. They are not, however, entitled to ignore the implications of doing nothing. Or worse, by doing everything.

Policies should never entice students into greater debt. Nor should they put taxpayer dollars at greater risk. There are too many politicians today who support policy that does both.

Still more advance the truly insidious notion of government gift giving. We’ve heard shrill calls to “cancel,” to “forgive,” to “make it all free.” Any innocuous label out there can’t obfuscate what it really is: wrong.

The campaign for “free college” is a matter of total government control. Make no mistake: it is a socialist takeover of higher education. Now, depending on your personal politics, some of you might not find that notion as scary as I do. But mark my words: none of you would like the way it will work.

You won’t like being forced to tell students they aren’t eligible to attend your school, or that they aren’t allowed to choose the degree program they want, or that your quota for “free college” students is full and that they now have to pay full price.

In this sense, you are no longer counselors, but “rationers.” You’ll be forced to merely oversee rationing of state-approved higher education options. After all, government doesn’t control anything only half-way.

The first step was monopolizing student lending. $1.5 trillion later, can anyone say with a straight face that students are better off? That taxpayers are better off?

American higher education is still the envy of the world because it is currently a competitive marketplace that drives innovation and produces high-quality outcomes. If the politicians proposing “free college” today get their way, just watch our colleges and universities begin to resemble a failing K-12 school, with the customer service of the DMV to boot.

It’s also a matter of fairness. More than two-thirds of Americans don’t pursue a four-year college education. Many pursue different, and just as valid, paths to gain the skills needed for successful careers.

It’s fundamentally unfair to ask two-thirds of Americans who don’t go to college to pay the bills for the mere one-third who do. And it’s even more unfair to those who have held up their end of the bargain and paid back their student loans themselves to subsidize those who don’t save, plan, and pay.

Ultimately, nothing is “free.” Somebody, somewhere pays the bill.

And the bill is coming due. What we do next in education policy—and in public policy writ large—will either break our already fragile economy, or it will unleash an age of achievement and prosperity the likes of which we’ve never seen.

I believe we can do the latter. I believe “We the People” can do great things in this country. I say that from experience.

I’ve spent the better part of three decades fighting to fix education for students of all ages in this country. I know we can do it. I know people of good faith can match good intentions with good policy and just do what’s right for students. It’s amazing how much we agree on when we don’t let politics or personalities get in the way.

We can continue to make higher education more attainable and affordable while improving its quality and its value proposition.

We can continue to open new pathways beyond high school that lead to well-paying careers or entrepreneurial successes.

We can continue to rethink student aid delivery to make it the high-quality product students deserve while treating taxpayers fairly.

And together, we can continue to be the proud sponsor of each and every American mind that wants to make our great nation stronger, freer, and more prosperous.

Thank you for your partnership these past four years. I look forward to continuing to support America’s students right alongside you.