President-elect Joe Biden’s victory speech on November 7 included a nod to teachers, including his wife, Jill Biden, herself a teacher. “You’re going to have one of your own in the White House,” he said—public education, then, would seem to be a personal priority for his administration? “For American educators,” he said, “this is a great day for y’all.”
Educators, students, and organizers certainly hope this is the case. Trump’s outgoing cabinet has allowed the Department of Education to devolve into turmoil over the past four years, with now-former education secretary Betsy DeVos leaving behind a long trail of cruelties for the Biden administration to correct. Everything from her refusal to initiate student debt forgiveness to lack of support for teachers’ unions, to changes to Title IX regulations that create more barriers to report sexual harassment has put profit ahead of student well-being. She built a department off of backwards, undemocratic priorities; it’s up to this administration to repudiate and reverse them.
The administration could start with a problem that’s been weighing down the country since long before DeVos and her fleet of yachts took power. More than 40 million people in the United States are federal student loan borrowers, collectively owing about $1.5 trillion in debt payments. While DeVos has paused federal student loan payments until January 31, 2021, under the CARES Act, she vehemently opposed debt forgiveness throughout her term, including for students who have been defrauded by higher education institutions.
These students, often coming out of for-profit schools such as ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges, were promised debt relief under the Obama administration’s Borrower Defense to Repayment program—until DeVos began attempting to rewrite and frequently altogether deny it. During her time in office, it was not uncommon for students to receive letters from her department acknowledging they had, in fact, been defrauded, but unfortunately would not be receiving any financial assistance with their debt. Given that the officials in DeVos’s ranks have a history of being cozy with for-profit schools, it is clear whom she wants her department to serve.
Biden, so far, has endorsed canceling $10,000 of federal student loan debt per each borrower once he’s sworn in. This would completely erase all student debt for about one-third of all federal loan borrowers, but for around 11 million borrowers, this would cancel only a small fraction of their debilitating debt.
While this is a start, organizers say it’s not nearly enough. Any amount of debt forgiveness likely won’t materialize before DeVos’s “pause” on debt repayments sunsets, and organizers are still working toward the goal of the new administration canceling debt payments in full. Two months prior to Biden’s victory, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a plan that encourages the next president to use existing executive authority to cancel $50,000 in federal student debt per borrower. Under the Higher Education Act of 1965, the secretary of education also has the legal authority to broadly cancel debt, the resolution explains. “If he wants to do something big that Mitch McConnell can’t stop, and if he wants to stimulate the economy in the great depression that we are entering,” Thomas Gokey, cofounder of the Debt Collective union said, “this is the mechanism he has to do it.”
But according to Gokey, resistance to debt forgiveness didn’t start with DeVos—the Obama administration, albeit maybe not as explicitly, did not make the fight for debt cancellation any easier. Organizers had to “fight tooth and nail” with Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, to protect students and implement policies that would cancel debt. In essence, Gokey said, Duncan “kicked the can to Betsy DeVos, who has been steamrolling everyone she possibly can.”
By avoiding a decision that could have instantly improved the lives of 40 million people, the Obama administration dropped the decision into the lap of a billionaire education secretary that, to the bitter end, maintained her disdain for debt cancellation, recently calling it “the truly insidious notion of government gift giving.”
This administration cannot repeat the Obama administration’s negligence, especially as we face a pandemic that has forced millions of people into unemployment. The CDC’s federal eviction moratorium expires at the end of this month—meanwhile, anyone who has been hospitalized or has a loved one hospitalized this year could be facing thousands of dollars of additional debt from medical bills. In December, the Gravel Institute found that one in three GoFundMe campaigns are now for medical bills, making the platform one of the largest insurers in the country. People are drowning, but even before Covid-19, the burden of paying back massive student debt jeopardized their dreams of a stable path to eventual retirement, or even just providing food and shelter for their families.
Because of this, some, like Gokey, who said he currently owes about $37,000 in student loan debts, have simply stopped paying: other things have to come first. Many other people are being forced into the same position, he said, which is what launched the Debt Collective, a union of borrowers working together to bring national student debt relief. They have recently launched a debt strike, with the intention of pressuring the Biden administration to use his authority to cancel all student debt. “If they don’t use it to help people’s lives, it’s an abuse of power,” he said. “I think they really underestimate just how much pain people are in right now. To refuse to help sends a massive, massive message that the Democratic Party doesn’t care about you.”
Sandy Nurse, Debt Collective member and a community organizer running for New York City Council in District 37, joined this effort after years of struggling to survive under an income-based repayment plan. She said withholding these payments give organizers and students the power to “potentially cripple the financial industry that is completely profiting off the hardships of people, the homelessness of people, the inability of people to get the medical stuff they need, the inability of people to move on with their lives with just the idea of trying to get an education.”
“People here are just trying to survive, and trying to have a very basic quality of life,” she said. “Why should I be paying more in my student debt than some billionaires even pay in taxes?”
By registering one of her family’s 10 yachts in the Cayman Islands, DeVos has avoided more than $2 million in tax payments, Michigan’s The Gander found. That amount would reportedly cover the annual salaries of about 40 school nurses. Forbes reports that her family also has access to a private fleet of 12 jets and four helicopter. During these organizers’ continued debt strikes, others have also tried to raise the flawed argument that canceling student debt isn’t fair to those who already paid theirs off.
“It’s capitalism,” Nurse said. “It’s the myth of ‘if you work hard enough, you can make it,’ which completely fails to acknowledge the structural barriers that many different groups of people face.”
DeVos will also be leaving behind a warped Title IX system. Created under the guise of expanding due process on college campuses, her changes to Title IX regulations faced backlash from survivor advocacy and gender-based violence groups, which called the changes “heartless, cruel, reckless and irresponsible.” In addition to opening the door to cross-examinations, live hearings, and witness testimonies for students who bring forward a sexual misconduct claim, those same students will now have to clear a higher burden of proof to be considered valid. Survivor advocates say that this will create a chilling effect in an institutional setting that rarely fostered a safe environment for transparency and vulnerability before DeVos was in office.
Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit civil rights organization, sued DeVos earlier this year over her changes to Title IX. “The destruction and harm that Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education have caused in this short amount of time, these last four years, is astonishing and widespread,” Brenda Adams, senior counsel for litigation and education equity at the organization, said.
ERA is one of many advocacy agencies that has vocalized major concerns with DeVos’s changes to Title IX during her tenure. The majority of the over 124,000 comments people submitted during the allotted period of public comment were critical. Unsurprisingly, no student survivor’s rights groups supported the changes.
Still, just like the president who appointed her, DeVos moved forward with her overhaul without any regard for what was best for the people she swore to serve. For the thousands of students who may still be entangled in Title IX cases, Adams said Biden’s decision to implement new regulations of the law could make all the difference. “Our hope is that the Biden administration will invite survivors and their advocates back into the fold, back to the table, to return to its original purpose,” Adams said.
DeVos’s version of Title IX turns college campuses into quasi criminal justice courts. But, according to Adams, that was never the spirit of the law, which was originally constructed to be a path for students to feel safe without involving police at all—rather than increasing punishment, the law was meant to ensure equal access to education. “I can’t tell you how many clients I have personally had who have specifically told me that they went to their Title IX office because they didn’t want to go to the police for various reasons,” she said, often because they don’t want to make an already bad situation more complicated. “They don’t want that. They just want to be safe at school. They just want to go to their classes. They want to play on their sports teams, and they want to do it without being sexually harassed or assaulted. That’s it—it’s not really that much to ask.”
But DeVos’s changes, which place more hurdles and burdens in front of students looking for a solution, might make them feel they have to look outside the Title IX office, which, Adams said, would be worse for everyone.
Adams said Title IX should operate as a framework for survivors to achieve healing and a clear path to resolution without using punitive measures and without involving the institutions that perpetuate violence themselves. Under DeVos, instead of solutions that center this healing for students, the Title IX process attempts to set up a microcosm of our carceral systems on a college campus, with just as much dysfunction.
Moreover, student loan debt cancellation is also an issue of gender-based violence. Title IX reform and debt cancellation do not operate as mutually exclusive issues. In fact, seeking medical care after an assault can cost a student an additional thousands of dollars, and violence and abuse comprise over one-third of US health care costs. The costs of pursuing mental health services outside of their institutions alone can be enough to plunge students into debt. If a student needs to withdraw from classes or jobs because of a lack of support from their schools throughout the Title IX process, they might not only be losing a source of income but will also probably be forced to start paying back loans once they dip below half-time enrollment. DeVos has not only managed to continue higher education’s historical streak of exclusion and exploitation; she has propelled it into an even more straining environment, where insurmountable financial precarity is an inherent experience of survivorship.
In late December of last year, Biden nominated Miguel Cardona to be the next education secretary, and by January, DeVos had resigned early from her office. Cardona is a foil to DeVos in essentially every way; he was an elementary school teacher before becoming a principal and eventually, an assistant superintendent in Connecticut. He was raised attending public schools, became a leader of them, and is now a parent of kids who attend public schools, too. His career thus far has not had a focus on higher education, so his plans for student debt and Title IX are uncertain. Mending education policies at the federal level won’t be easy, but Cardona should listen to teachers’ unions, advocates, and student organizers to guide his next steps in canceling student debt and advancing safe, restorative policies within higher education.
“Next to the criminal justice system, our education system is the most racist part of our society,” Gokey said. “It always has been; we’ve never truly desegregated. There’s a lot that could be done, and we should expect and demand an aggressive Department of Education.”