By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter
Miguel Cardona, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Education (ED), breezed through his Senate committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday, somewhat abating concerns that his confirmation process could follow the same strained path as his predecessor.
Instead, the hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee featured an early display of bipartisanship, as Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the committee’s incoming chair, spoke highly of her counterpart Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the incoming ranking member, with Burr saying he supports Cardona's nomination as education secretary and will urge his colleagues to do the same.
The hearing was the first indicator of whether Republicans would back Cardona's nomination and stood in stark contrast to the contentious and deadlocked nomination hearings of his predecessor, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who championed school choice and was ultimately confirmed following a tie-breaking vote in the Senate from then-Vice President Mike Pence.
Cardona used his opening remarks to speak of his background as the product of public education and his experience as both a public school teacher and principal.
"For me, education opened doors,” he said. “That is the power and promise of America — but it is not a promise kept for every student.”
Throughout the hearing, Cardona repeated his commitment to lead a department that provides opportunities to all students, particularly disadvantaged students. He touched on the impact the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had on higher education enrollment, noting that fewer students started college this fall, especially at community colleges that serve as an entry point to postsecondary education and upward economic mobility.
Increasing opportunities and pathways to job training, certification, and early enrollment for high school students at community colleges was a frequent topic of discussion during the hearing, with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle emphasizing the need for ED and the federal government to offer more support to career and technical education as an alternative to a more expensive four-year college degree.
Cardona, a graduate of a technical high school in Connecticut and the state’s education commissioner, pointed to the importance of community colleges as part of the solution, referring to them as the country’s “best-kept secret” and saying they would be key to helping the nation and its students recover from the pandemic.
He added that he wants middle and high school students to be able to discover potential careers earlier and to be given more opportunities for hands-on training, noting that those early-in-life experiences could make students “more likely to go back to college and get a degree in something they’re passionate about.”
“For first-generation college students in particular, who might think about college and think, early on, 'That's not for me. I can't afford it,' we need to really remove those mental barriers that may exist generationally, and really give them access to that," Cardona said.
The most illuminating answers from Cardona regarding student loans and federal student aid came during a line of questioning from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a staunch advocate for student loan debt forgiveness and overhauling how the federal government operates as a lender to borrowers.
Notably, Cardona said as head of the department he would work to improve the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) after Warren said she hopes he will "reform FSA so that it works for student borrowers instead of for big corporations,” alleging FSA under DeVos served "greedy student loan servicers."
Cardona committed to using the tools at his disposal as secretary to provide student loan borrowers with immediate relief amid the pandemic, but stopped short of agreeing to Warren’s request to use executive authority to cancel any amount of student loan debt for each borrower, as Warren has proposed.
Biden has said he wants to work with Congress on a proposal to forgive $10,000 worth of federal student loan debt for each borrower and Cardona has echoed that sentiment, while Warren has argued — reiterating on Wednesday — that the power to do so will be "waiting on your desk" for Cardona should he be sworn in as secretary. She and other advocates have said the administration possesses the executive authority to forgive student loan debt without legislation from Congress.
Burr in his opening remarks said he is “not eager to see the Biden administration pursue dangerous and foolhardy proposals to simply forgive student loans.”
"The claims by some that [the] Higher Education Act allows this would stretch the law beyond recognition. I hope that you and the White House don't pursue that,” he said to Cardona. “Instead I invite you to work with Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that dramatically simplifies student loan repayment options."
ED has already implemented Biden’s executive order to pause federal student loan payments and to halt interest accrual through at least September 30, but Biden so far has indicated he would like to see Congress tackle the issue of debt forgiveness.
Cardona also acknowledged the fact that students who don’t complete degrees, along with Black borrowers and borrowers of color, are disproportionately struggling to pay off their student loan debt after leaving their institutions.
“That’s exacerbating gaps,” he said. “That’s perpetuating the haves and have-nots.”
Though not referring specifically to higher education, Cardona appeared to support the robust coronavirus relief package put forward by the Biden administration that totals nearly $2 trillion and includes direct aid for K-12 and colleges, saying "we really need to invest now, or we're going to pay later."
Absent from the hearing were any questions from lawmakers regarding how ED under Cardona would incentivize states to invest in higher education as states’ higher education budgets have been hit hard primarily due to the pandemic.
Additionally, amid the discussion surrounding career and technical education, there was no explicit talk of increasing funding for the Pell Grant, though Cardona did briefly mention the diminished purchasing power of the primary federal aid program for low-income students.
Following the relatively smooth hearing before the Senate committee, Cardona appears to be on track to be confirmed before the full Senate in the coming weeks. Should he be confirmed, Cardona will be tasked with leading a department seeking to safely reopen schools across the country and implement an ambitious higher education agenda from the Biden administration, which first calls for providing borrowers with debt relief.
Publication Date: 2/4/2021