By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter
Federal Student Aid’s (FSA) annual training conference looked a bit different this year, going virtual for the first time due to the disruptions caused by the ongoing pandemic as officials provided updates on what to expect in the coming years and highlighted successes over the past year.
Gen. Mark Brown, FSA’s chief operating officer, opened the first day of the conference by thanking those at FSA and in financial aid offices for their work navigating an unprecedented year full of challenges.
Brown pointed to FSA’s mission and ethos of putting people first, urging those in attendance to continue to create opportunities for students to obtain a higher education and supporting institutions that deliver those opportunities.
“Stay in the fight,” Brown said. “It’s a reminder that no matter what obstacles we face, we must persevere toward our goals. To provide education for all who want it regardless of affluence or zip code. In our current circumstances, it has only become more relevant to continue fighting for students, parents, and borrowers. And this is a fight worth having. This is a fight we win when we fight together, and together, we can.”
While Brown acknowledged FSA’s work to quickly extend student debt relief to borrowers amid the pandemic, neither he nor Education Secretary Betsy DeVos mentioned whether those relief measures would be extended beyond the end of the month, when they are set to expire.
Brown also gave an update on FSA’s work to overhaul the federal student loan system — known as Next Generation Financial Services Environment, or NextGen — saying the implementation is well underway and will change how borrowers interact with FSA, apply for and receive aid, and make payments on their loans.
Officials on Tuesday also announced the upcoming launch of the FSA Partner Connect portal, the latest installment of the NextGen initiative.
The portal, which is set to go live in March 2021, will include a dashboard with information by award year, such as open financial aid cases, the amount of loans disbursed at a respective institution, the number of students receiving aid at the institution, and the Direct Loans and Pell Grants disbursed and drawn down.
The portal will also include improved search functions and centralized training and guidance for financial aid professionals featuring an interactive FSA Handbook, among other functions.
“We’re taking yet another important step to make interacting with FSA a better, more user-friendly experience for financial aid professionals who work so hard to ensure students have the resources they need to pursue their higher education goals,” Brown said.
But Brown also lamented some of the challenges facing FSA and higher education in general, such as the rising federal student loan debt, the cost of college outpacing inflation, and the obstacles created by the coronavirus. And although the pandemic forced the conference to go virtual this year, Brown noted that it allowed for more to attend, with more than 15,000 registered participants.
Pointing to the ongoing pandemic as the primary factory, Brown said FAFSA submissions from high school seniors were down nearly 15% nationwide, though a handful states had double-digit percentage increases compared to last year.
Next up, DeVos began her keynote address by touting the improvements and advancements FSA has made over the course of her tenure, from streamlining FSA’s website to launching a mobile FAFSA app.
As FSA noted in its recently published draft strategic plan, DeVos touched on the importance of continuing to modernize FSA, striving to deliver services to students that are on par “with those of world-class financial firms and world-class customer experiences.”
“Students need more relevant and useful information so they can be more responsible consumers in the education marketplace,” DeVos said. “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.”
DeVos on Tuesday echoed calls from FSA’s long-term strategic plan to continue to explore becoming a stand-alone government agency, run by an apolitical board — an idea NASFAA has supported.
Regarding the ongoing debate over what should be done to address the student loan debt borrowers currently hold, DeVos took a strong stance, denouncing free college plans and debt forgiveness proposals championed by some on the left, marking a political tone that she took throughout her 12-minute pre-recorded remarks.
“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,” she said. “The campaign for ‘free college’ is a matter of total government control. Make no mistake: it is a socialist takeover of higher education.”
DeVos painted the debate around free college and debt forgiveness as one of fairness, saying “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,” she said.
President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on the proposal of eliminating $10,000 in student loan debt for all borrowers, along with providing tuition-free college for individuals from families under certain income thresholds.
DeVos asserted that “nothing is free” and someone ultimately foots the bill, in this case the taxpayer.
“And the bill is coming due,” she said. “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.”
To DeVos’ point, education policy is almost certainly set to change in the coming years, with Biden set to take the White House and a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) overdue. It is likely that a Biden administration will seek to re-implement some Obama-era policies — such as borrower defense and gainful employment — that DeVos sought to do away with.
DeVos noted at the end of her address that regardless of progress that has been made, there is still work to be done to improve higher education.
“We can continue to make higher education more attainable and affordable while improving its quality and its value proposition,” she said. “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.”
Publication Date: 12/2/2020