As a Part of Higher Ed Agenda, Cardona Stresses Importance Affordability and Urgency in Pandemic Recovery

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Monday outlined his agenda for federal education policy, touting investments in community college, reworking federal student loan programs, and ensuring student equity in recovery from the pandemic.

The wide-ranging discussion was held during a seminar hosted by the Education Writers Association (EWA), where Cardona took questions while visiting the Community College of Baltimore County Catonsville Campus in Maryland.

Cardona used the conversation to tout President Joe Biden’s recently unveiled American Families Plan and stress the importance of giving students a variety of pathways for pursuing their higher education goals.

“That's why the American Families Plan focuses on community college for everyone for two years,” Cardona said. “There are efforts from the president to provide postsecondary education opportunities. I just hope it moves forward because it's going to be, no pun intended, a shot in the arm for our country.”

On the student loan front, Cardona said the Department of Education (ED) would look into addressing issues with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and borrower defense implementation, and that correcting barriers to access remains a top priority.

While stressing the importance of access to postsecondary education, Cardona also said it would be ED’s goal to ensure that borrowers aren’t repaying their student loans for the rest of their lives. 

ED under the Biden administration has approved a swath of debt relief for a number of defrauded borrowers and is expected to soon release a memo concerning what — if any — authority the executive branch has to cancel student loans. During the conversation, Cardona gave little indication of any of the memo’s details or a timeline of its release and instead stressed the importance of James Kvaal’s confirmation as ED under secretary.

“I don’t have a specific timeline of when we’re going to be announcing things. I can tell you there is a great sense of urgency,” Cardona said. “I’m hoping that the confirmation of the under secretary happens soon.”

The Senate is currently on recess and returns to session on May 10, at which time a final vote on Kvaal’s confirmation could be scheduled.

In terms of the current federal moratorium on student loans — through which ED has paused interest accrual and monthly payments and suspended collection activities for certain federally-held loans — Cardona said it was “conceivable” for the suspension to be extended past Sept. 30, 2021, when the benefit is slated to expire.

“We’re looking at it. Obviously we’re going to always take lead from what the data is telling us where we are as a country with regard to the recovery of the pandemic,” Cardona said. “It’s not out of the question, but at this point it’s September 30.” 

He also said there would be an effort to increase communication with borrowers as the repayment resumption approaches. NASFAA in March joined a handful of other higher education groups detailing several concrete ways ED and Federal Student Aid (FSA) can utilize the months leading up to the resumption of repayment to best ensure a smooth transition process.

“We're going to continue to communicate with borrowers, if that goes any further,” Cardona said of a possible extension. “We're also going to create a ramp up because we know that we can't just turn on the switch and say, ‘Okay.’ We have to work with them to make sure that we ramp up the communication and clarity so that it's as smooth as possible. We know that that's something that we're going to be focusing on as it gets closer.”

While borrowers await for more clarity from the administration, Cardona indicated that the department is looking to tackle the student debt crisis in a manner that addresses the root causes of the growing costs associated with postsecondary education.

“It's really important to recognize too that we have to kind of go down the river, right, to see where this is coming from and really stop the bleeding,” Cardona said of the growing size of student loan debt. “I really am passionate about making sure ... that we can quantify a return on investment. I want to make sure that our graduates are graduating with greater earning potential and going out there and buying homes and contributing and not being held down by debt. Unfortunately, that's the narrative for so many families.”


Publication Date: 5/4/2021

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