DeVos Answers Come Up Short to Democrats at House Hearing

By Megan Walter, Policy and Federal Relations Staff

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday spoke before a House appropriations subcommittee, making the case for the Department of Education's (ED) proposed budget for fiscal year 2020, which she had previously defended in a statement saying that the budget proposal reaffirms the administration’s “commitment to spending taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently by consolidating or eliminating duplicative and ineffective federal programs.”

The fiscal year 2020 budget proposes eliminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) programs, cutting funding for the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program in half, and rescinding $2 billion from the Pell Grant reserve funds, which DeVos referred to as an “accounting adjustment, not a cut” during the hearing.  

Chairwoman Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) opened the hearing saying, “I believe that this budget is cruel, and I believe that this budget is reckless. It will hurt middle class and low-income families that most need our help. In fact, the proposed budget cuts nearly $9 billion from the Department of Education.” She continued, directed at DeVos, “How can you support and even take pride or boast about taking 10 percent [of funding] away from teachers, and students?”

DeVos said in her prepared remarks, "This budget reflects our commitment to spending taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently while supporting our nation’s students of all ages. If this country is to remain secure, strong, prosperous, and free, we need students who are prepared to pursue successful careers and lead meaningful lives. The government must resist the urge to pick winners and losers among students, institutions, and occupations. Instead, we must encourage and enable every student to be their best self and live their best life."

While the hearing mainly focused on issues within K-12 education, such as the School Safety State Grant, increased funding to charter school programs, and the defunding of disability services, some subcommittee members pressed DeVos to explain decisions in the proposed budget that they claim would make institutions less affordable and less accessible.  

Many members of subcommittee took time to address, and support, the proposal allowing short-term programs to administer Pell Grants, but DeVos failed to address the concerns of many of the Democratic House members, including ED’s plans to make sure that “bad actor” institutions don’t take advantage of this new change, and what guardrails ED would like to see put in place to ensure that any risks from this new Pell Grant flexibility is mitigated for students, and for taxpayers.

Democratic members of the subcommittee were also concerned with how the Pell Grant expansion was going to be paid for, since ED did not include an increase to the Pell Grant budget for 2020. DeVos replied that she believes “that there would be a great many Pell Grant-eligible students who would opt to take a shorter term program in lieu of the traditional route, and we would see a tradeoff of funds from the long-term Pell Grant programs to the short-term programs”. DeVos summed up her remarks on the short-term Pell Grant program by saying that it would allow the U.S. to “have a plan for careers that don’t even exist yet, and prepare for lifelong learning opportunity.”

Rep. John Moolenaar (R-MI) asked DeVos how the FWS proposal—which would cut program funding by 56 percent—would better target funds to low-income students. DeVos replied that the program needs reforms because of the current allocation formula, which “works so that often, the most funds are going to the most elite universities, not the ones with the most need.” She continued that the program as it’s run now, has many students working in campus bookstores or cafeterias, whereas her proposal would expand eligible job options to allow students to work with employers they might ultimately have a career with after school.

The 2016 borrower defense to repayment rule was brought up by Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), specifically focusing on ED’s recent guidance that schools could continue to enforce mandatory arbitration if the dispute did not involve federal student loans. Bustos continued that these statements are often hidden in the small print of enrollment contracts, which forces a student’s hand to accept if they want to attend that institution.

DeVos replied that the current administration is working to revise the borrower defense rules so that they’re more fair to students, and ultimately taxpayers. DeVos said that she believes the partial relief formula is more respectful to taxpayers, and that they hope to release final rules within the next few months.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), questioned the lack of detail of the “skin-in-the-game” risk-sharing proposal that the 2020 budget mentions. Lee argued that many institutions already do have skin-in-the-game, specifically Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—whose student populations are on average 74 percent Pell Grant recipients. Lee stressed that proposals of risk sharing enforced incorrectly can incentivize institutions to only enroll students of certain means and can end up harming minority students.

In her reply, DeVos acknowledged that the risk-sharing proposal “is a very broad proposal, and not defined at all yet”, but that she is “looking forward to working with Congress to ensure institutions have some sort of commitment to the students they’re serving” and that ED is concerned with any possible negative effects on low-income or minority student populations from a proposal.

DeLauro expressed her frustrations with the Secretary and her inability to answer many of the committee members’ questions in her closing remarks. She blankly told DeVos “you can be assured that we are going to reject much of what is here, as we have in the past”. DeLauro continued to say she “looks forward to working with her colleagues across the aisle, to reject these cuts, and to improve the lives of American families.”


Publication Date: 3/27/2019

Aesha E | 3/27/2019 2:48:47 PM

I watched a chunk of the hearing, but missed the part where DeVos said that they expect students would switch to short-term programs from longer ones. Could be true. I would suspect that students who chose that option may more likely be lower-income, and as such might have taken loans before they switched to this short-term program. I wonder if folks at ED thought about that, and how those students might well lose the subsidy on their loans due to SULA. And on another note, they'd have to change some academic calendar rules, I suspect....

I take issue with the comment about schools having "some sort of commitment" to students. I think I speak for most people in higher education when I say that we DO have a commitment to students--none of us would be here if we didn't! There are certainly bad actors out there (as there are in any field!), but by and large those who work in higher education do what we can with what we have. And with rising costs and reduced budgets, that sometimes leads to leaner staffs--who can only do so much, even if they want to do much, much more.

David S | 3/27/2019 10:16:21 AM

I wish that someone would point out to the cabinet Secretary whose department runs the Pell Grant program that Pell Grants are already available to students in non-degree vocational programs of short duration. Now maybe the administration wants to change some of the details (such as bringing back Trump University and letting Pell Grants pay for that, just shoot me now), but she is currently talking about this as though it is some brand new thing that hasn't been done before. It is not.

And it's unclear to me how many students who have been seeking a degree will instead opt for a vocational program that can be measured in weeks rather than years. Some might, but the administration seems to have a plan in place (and I'm using that phrase loosely) predicated on a mass migration from degree programs to short-term job training, and I would ask what they're basing that presumption on.

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