I’m writing today to share a few thoughts on the nomination of Betsy DeVos for the post of Secretary of Education. After watching segments of her nomination hearing and reading her responses on a variety of issues I am convinced she is uniquely unqualified to fill this position. While she demonstrated a general lack of knowledge about the federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and a flippancy toward existing whistleblower protection laws that ensure federal dollars are not being misused, her answers about student loans and higher education financial assistance were particularly troubling to me.
I am currently among the large and growing swath of Americans who carry a large sum of student loan debt. Student loans helped me buy books and pay for room and board for four years of undergraduate education but the bulk of my debt came from my decision to attend graduate school. When I graduated in 2013, I had amassed nearly $150,000 in debt to the Department of Education. Over the last four years, I have paid back about an entire year’s worth of tuition, and still owe the government more than $100,000.
The reason it felt safe to take out this much debt in order to attend school was precisely because of the federal programs available to help me pay them back. One of those programs is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which helps students with sizable amounts of debt take jobs in non-profit and public service organizations, rewarding us for taking low-paying jobs that support our local communities while still staying on top of our debt. Another is the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, which similarly rewards individuals who commit to teaching in K12 schools for at least 10 years. The most impactful, and complex, of the federal student loan benefits is the variety of repayment options. These, and especially the income based plans, ensure that borrowers with high amounts of debt can take risks and live their life without risking default. My wife and I were able to afford the house we just bought because of the lessened debt burden we bear as a result of being part of these programs. We are able to consider having a child because these programs ensure that if we do, we’ll have enough in the bank to continue to support our family.
Some might look at these programs and see them as ways of getting out of paying a debt we owe, but they are not. These programs do the opposite: They make repayment possible. Public servants like myself only earn debt forgiveness if they make 120 on-time, regular payments on their loans. If I qualify for this program, the amount forgiven will be small compared to the amount of interest I have repaid on my loan to the Department of Education. The repayment programs still obligate the borrower to pay some money every month, it’s just capped to a percentage of their family income. For many like myself, these programs are the only means of survival. Without them, we would have to put on hold large, potentially risky decisions like taking a low paying job, starting a business, or starting a family.
Not only did Ms. DeVos never take out loans for her education, she doesn’t know anybody who did. She grew up a kind of wealthy most people can hardly even imagine, so did her children, her friends, and family. She doesn’t know any Pell Grant recipients, and in her testimony on the Hill this week, did not demonstrate she recognizes the importance of ED’s role in helping people who aren’t billionaires afford college. These programs are not perfect but they are helping millions of Americans, young and old, afford higher education. We need a leader in the Department of Education who will work with us borrowers to improve these programs and keep us from default. In her testimony yesterday, Ms. DeVos demonstrated she is not aware of these programs, and cannot, or will not, have the empathy with borrowers required to make thoughtful decisions about the future of these programs.
The Secretary of Education does not need to be intimately familiar with every one of the Department’s programs. But the Secretary does need curiosity, thoughtfulness, and empathy for the individuals who are impacted by the Department every day. Her testimony demonstrated a lack of all three. For these reasons, I urge you to vote against her confirmation.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.