Education Secretary Betsy DeVos returned to Capitol Hill Thursday to again defend President Donald Trump’s fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget proposal, this time appearing before Senate appropriators. Last week, DeVos justified the budget to members of a House appropriations subcommittee, and faced criticism for its intentions to flatline funding for the Pell Grant program while drawing interest around plans to restructure the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA).
The budget proposal included an 8.4% decrease from enacted FY 2020 appropriations to the Department of Education (ED) and deep cuts to financial aid programs, along with new policy proposals such as setting limits on borrowing for graduate students and parents.
During her opening remarks, DeVos told lawmakers that “students and families continue to face numerous challenges in financing postsecondary education so we must continue to rethink and modernize the federal financial aid system,” citing proposals within the budget such as one to expand Pell Grant eligibility to short-term programs and certain incarcerated individuals.
While Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) called the budget a “bold request” and said he was interested in hearing more about DeVos’ plans for FSA, Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) immediately criticized its significant cuts to aid programs.
“The budget also does nothing to address the college affordability crisis that is facing our nation,” Murray said in her opening statement. “Instead, it proposes to cut more than $1.6 billion from grants and [Federal] Work-Study (FWS) that will force students to borrow more, while dramatically reducing benefits for student loan borrowers, even eliminating loan forgiveness for student borrowers who become teachers or enter their other public service professions.”
Murray concluded that she hopes “again, as we have in the past, we will work together to restore these cuts in the budget.”
In addition to specific proposals within the budget, Murray said she was concerned with DeVos’ plans to in some cases offer borrower defense applicants partial debt relief, and her reinstatement of the troubled for-profit accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS).
During the hearing, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) questioned DeVos about pending borrower defense claims, citing that only 13 of the 3,000 pending claims in his home state of Oregon have been processed as of the last fiscal quarter.
“The applications just seem to stack up and not get resolved,” Merkley said. “How can we apply more energy for getting people answers on these claims?”
DeVos blamed the courts for blocking ED’s first attempt in 2018 to offer partial relief for those borrowers, which she explained resulted in ED having to establish a new methodology to determine how much relief to award students. While the first calculations caused issues due to privacy concerns, many higher education advocates have also slammed the revised methodology for faulty math.
Democratic lawmakers also pressed DeVos about the budget’s elimination of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, to which Devos replied that “the administration feels that incentivising one type of work and one type of job over another is uncalled for.”
Lawmakers requested DeVos follow up with plans to support the borrowers currently in the program, and DeVos told them they “made it a very difficult program to qualify for.”
In addition to the criticism, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, asked DeVos when lawmakers can expect to see the implementation of the data-sharing provisions included in the Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education (FUTURE) Act to help simplify the financial aid process, and thanked her for her “critical role in getting the administration to agree'' to its passage. DeVos confirmed ED has already met with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about solidifying a data-sharing relationship to improve the FAFSA, and is working to get it implemented “as quickly as possible.”
Many lawmakers also pressed DeVos on her plans to assist students and schools in protecting themselves against the COVID-19 coronavirus. DeVos said ED has created a working group to collaborate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is taking an “aggressive approach.”
The next step of the annual budget and appropriations process is for the House and Senate to develop their respective funding proposals.
For more information on the federal budget and appropriations process, check out NASFAA's Federal Budget and Appropriations page, which features a flowchart that explains the budget process and also includes recent news. In addition, NASFAA's Federal Budget FAQ page answers some of your most pressing budget questions.
NASFAA encourages all members to join the "Fight for Financial Aid" by liking the campaign's Facebook page, tweeting with #Fight4FinAid, and by sharing campaign links with friends, colleagues, and students.
Publication Date: 3/6/2020