Betsy DeVos appears to have only a couple of months remaining in her tenure as President Trump’s Secretary of Education.
All of the major U.S. news outlets, including the Associated Press, have now called the presidential race for Joe Biden. While votes continue to be counted, these nonpartisan outlets have determined that President Trump has no reasonable pathway to prevail. Trump would be the first incumbent president to be defeated since George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Pending final certification of the results (which will not happen for several more weeks in most states), when Biden takes office in January, he will be able to to select a new cabinet. Cabinet members are appointed by the President, and must be confirmed by the Senate.
Betsy DeVos has been a controversial figure as President Trump’s Secretary of Education for the last four years. Biden’s assumption of the presidency would terminate DeVos’s tenure, and he would then select a replacement to run the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees and administers the country’s sprawling federal student loan system.
Consumer rights advocates and student loan borrowers have been highly critical of Secretary DeVos during her four years leading the Department. DeVos and her administration are currently embroiled in multiple lawsuits — some of which have been ongoing for years — involving the handling of numerous student loan programs.
One of DeVos’s biggest controversies has been her handling of the Borrower Defense to Repayment program. The Obama administration enacted regulations governing this loan forgiveness program in 2016 to provide student debt relief to students who were misled, defrauded, or otherwise harmed by predatory colleges and universities – often, for-profit schools. Under Secretary DeVos, however, the Department of Education rewrote the rules governing the program. These new regulations substantially weaken the Borrower Defense relief provided to student loan borrowers by increasing the burden of proof required to prevail, and imposing a strict statute of limitations.
Borrower advocates previously accused DeVos and the Department of Education of deliberately holding up the processing of nearly 170,000 Borrower Defense applications, in some cases for years; she was later found in contempt of court for continuing collections actions against borrowers while their applications were pending. A whistleblower later accused DeVos’s administration of intentionally making it harder for student loan borrowers to apply for relief. And after a tentative settlement agreement was reached that would force the Department to process the remaining Borrower Defense applications, her administration issued blanket denials to tens of thousands of student loan borrowers — in some cases, without any clear, logical reasoning. These matters continue to be litigated in federal court.
DeVos has also been criticized for her implementation of the CARES Act, which suspended all federal student loan payments and collections efforts in response to the ongoing pandemic. Student loan borrowers filed a class-action lawsuit against DeVos, accusing her of failing to comply with the CARES Act’s mandated collections suspension by continuing to garnish borrowers’ wages, in some cases for months after the CARES Act went into effect. In response to another class-action suit brought by student loan borrowers, the Department disclosed that it had intercepted and seized over $2.2 billion in tax refunds owed to a million student loan borrowers, in violation of the CARES Act.
DeVos has also come under fire for her handling of federal student loan servicing. Early in DeVos’s tenure, she rescinded Obama-era guidance that had been put in place to create greater accountability for student loan servicers that had poor outcomes. Since then, a recent report uncovered over 5 million student loan servicing errors that could cause lasting financial harm to student loan borrowers, particularly for borrowers seeking relief through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. Another report issued last year by the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General found ongoing and systemwide failures by federal student loan servicers. That report blamed both the servicers themselves and the U.S. Department of Education for its failure to hold them accountable.
Biden has not indicated who he would select as Education Secretary to replace DeVos. One possible pick is Randi Weingarten, president of the the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Weingarten and the AFT have been key players in aggressive litigation borrowers have brought against DeVos regarding her handling of federal student loan programs, particularly the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. Others have floated Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) or even Jill Biden (Joe Biden’s wife, who is a teacher) as possible nominees.
Regardless of who Biden specifically nominates, the new Education Secretary will be under enormous pressure to reverse many of DeVos’s policies and practices. Both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have expressed support for the Borrower Defense program, improving student loan servicing, shoring up and fixing student loan forgiveness programs, and holding bad actors — including student loan servicers and predatory schools — accountable for harming borrowers. Any potential nominee to head the Department of Education would have to commit to that vision, as well.