Roughly 45 million Americans owe a combined total of $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. If that were distributed evenly among the borrowers, each would owe close to $38,000.
Over the past two years, the federal government has paused collection of student loan payments because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, some Americans contend the government should forgive student loan debt outright.
But what would canceling a $1.7 trillion bill mean for the American people?
“When we talk about this notion of forgiving student loans, what we’re really talking about is benefiting those who don’t necessarily need it,” Betsy DeVos, a former secretary of education, says. “And the ones who are going to be ultimately paying for it are those who’ve never attended college.”
DeVos joins the “Problematic Women” podcast to explain how the Biden administration should—and should not—address rising student loan debt.
DeVos also addresses increasing concerns over the far left’s influence on education.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: It is our pleasure today to welcome to the show the former secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. Secretary, thank you so much for being here. It’s a pleasure to have you.
Betsy DeVos: Thanks, Virginia. It’s great to be with you.
Allen: Well, you are the author of a forthcoming book that comes out in June called, “Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child.” I’m so excited to talk about this book a little bit more in just a moment. It’s available for preorder right now. It hits the shelves on June 21st.
But before we talk about the book, I do want to ask you about a draft letter that has just come out, that the public has been made aware of. So, if we think back to last year, September 2021, there was a letter issued by the National School Boards Association to the White House, asking for assistance to investigate parents’ actions at school board meetings as potential instances of domestic terrorism. Now, we’ve learned that a draft version of this letter actually asked the White House to deploy Army National Guard and military police to certain school districts.
Secretary, what was your response when you learned that this had been a possible request from the National School Boards Association to the White House?
DeVos: Well, it was frankly appalling, and it’s still appalling. And as we find out more about it, it becomes even more appalling. The notion that parents who are interested in their children and their children’s education, they’re calling on National Guard to come and keep them from speaking their mind at school board meetings and/or asking questions is just … You can’t even make this stuff up, it is so far out of bounds. And I just am still amazed that the Department of Justice has not recalled the memo that was issued as a result also.
I mean, it just speaks volumes to what the system and all of the politicians who are in bed with the system trying to protect what is, and keep parents from being involved in their kids’ education. I think this is going to continue to force more and more parents to demand that they have the opportunity to control their kids’ educational futures. And I think it’s ultimately going to be good for parents and kids, but it’s very painful to see this sort of thing happening at a national level.
Lauren Evans: And Secretary, what do you think it says about the Biden administration? They would just take this letter and really parrot them themselves, rather than going back to the School Boards Association and sticking up for these parents.
DeVos: Well, it says where their priorities are, frankly. And we know that President [Joe] Biden has been a huge supporter of, and apologist for, the school union and the school union bosses. They were the ones who kept schools locked down, closed down, kids out of school for months, months, months on end, way longer than any science ever indicated. And it shows where the priorities are of this administration, and they’re not with parents and kids.
Allen: Well, and I know that it was some of these very frustrations that led you to write your new book, “Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child.” What was your primary mission in writing this book?
DeVos: Well, I wanted to tell my story. So, for 30 years before I went to Washington, I’ve been fighting for parents to have control of their kids’ education and to have a say about where and how their children are educated. So, the last couple of years, frankly, have really brought this issue to the forefront for families who never would’ve thought about the necessity of this before.
And so, it’s my story of over three and a half decades. And I had a front-row participatory seat during the whole pandemic and all of the nonsense, frankly, that was pulled during that time on the part of the system, to really preclude kids from doing the learning and having the interaction that they should have had. And so this is going to continue to be a tool that … Well, I hope it will … . It is expected to be a tool for parents who want to know what they can do to ensure that they have the say over their kids’ futures and their kids’ education.
And the title is a nod to the founder of this K-12 system that we still operate under to the largest extent today. Horace Mann, 175 years ago said, [“We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.”] And we’ve seen that in so many different ways and in ways that parents never would’ve expected just in this last couple of years. And it really is helping to foster and foment the kind of revolution we need in K-12 education.
Evans: Well, at the grade school level, we’ve seen over the past two years parents call for that curriculum transparency that you mentioned. And the Department of Education, are they doing enough to fight this?
DeVos: Well, the Department of Education in Washington should stay out of the curriculum business. That was what I maintained while I was there, and I wish, and I hope that this administration will. We’ve seen them actually favor critical race theory curriculum initially until they got so much blowback, they had to pull back on that.
But what parents should be demanding in their children’s school is to see all of the curriculum, all of the materials that they are sharing with children, because there’s moves in various states to ban certain curriculums. But what we know what will happen is, it will just be renamed something else, and it will slide under the radar screen when there is no transparency.
Now, I’ve heard from countless parents who have asked to see what their children are learning, asked to see the curriculum, asked to see the syllabus. And in so many places and so many cases, they’re being stonewalled, and they’re not being permitted to see what is going on in their children’s classroom.
Well, parents had a front-row seat to that when they were learning at a distance, and in many cases, parents were appalled at how little their children were learning. And in many other cases, they were appalled at the kinds of curriculum that their children were being taught. And so asking for, and really demanding, full transparency, which will result in accountability, is what parents should be doing right along with advocating for the control for their kids’ education.
Allen: Yeah. And with advocating for that control, we’re seeing so many more conversations arise about school choice and a need for school choice. We’ve recently seen Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speak out and say that “school choice is a good thing, it’s necessary.” He wants to back it. What are your thoughts on school choice programs? And do they help move the needle along in forcing public schools to have that education and curriculum transparency?
DeVos: Well, absolutely. I’ve long maintained that the solution to the problems in K-12 education is really education freedom. And what that means is empowering every single family in the country that has children in K-12 years with the resources that are already spent on that child.
I use the metaphor of a backpack. Kids go to school every day with the stuff they need. Let’s metaphorically put the funds that are used for that child into that backpack, and let parents decide where their children are going to go to school to learn. Maybe it’s a home-based hybrid school with a number of other families. Maybe it’s a faith-based school. Maybe it’s a charter school across town where you have to have transportation. Maybe it’s a career development … and technical education school. The variety of schools or the variety of experiences could be endless.
We haven’t seen that creativity because it’s been a monopolistic system for the vast majority of kids in this country. When families have that freedom, and when they’re empowered to make those choices, we will see creativity, [a] much bigger menu of choices. We will also see accountability because every school that wants to have children attend that school is going to have to do what the families are demanding and requiring for their children.
And so, Florida is the state that is farthest along in this regard. There’s still plenty more opportunity in Florida, but where there are more choices, everyone gets better. Everything gets better for students.
Evans: Well, and I love that metaphor of the cash in backpacks because it really does show how the money can individually go with each student. But speaking full of bags of cash, I want to talk about our student loan crisis that we have in our country right now. Americans hold about $1.7 trillion in student debt. There’s a lot of talk about the Biden administration forgiving either part or all of these loans. What do you anticipate that the Biden administration does?
DeVos: Well, I’m hopeful they follow the law, and they don’t do it. We have demonstrated; we left a very detailed memo talking about how the president does not have unilateral power to forgive student loan debt.
The Obama administration also took this position as well. So, I hope that President Biden will follow the law and not grant a bunch of student loan forgiveness. When we talk about this notion of forgiving student loans, what we’re really talking about is benefiting those who don’t necessarily need it. And the ones who are going to be ultimately paying for it are those who’ve never attended college, who didn’t take out student loans, taxpayers who chose not to go to higher education and take out student loans, or frankly, many taxpayers who have gone, who have faithfully paid off their student loans. And then think about also veterans earn their benefits for education by serving our country.
None of those things are operative when there’s mass student loan forgiveness, just based on what an individual owes. And looking at the data, the ones that would benefit most from mass student loan forgiveness are white Americans under the age of 40 with graduate degrees who live in high-income areas.
Well, that is the absolute opposite of what Biden and that administration professed to want to help. And so, it’s a matter of fairness. It’s not fair to go and just give massive student loan forgiveness. There are steps that can be taken to help students who truly need help. And we offered many of those up during the last administration, but those should be looked at seriously.
And frankly, the whole foundation of federal student lending, which was taken over as a monopoly by the Obama administration in 2010, this whole notion should be revisited because there is no incentive for higher-ed institutions to control their costs, to control the amount of tuition that they charge, to really provide the value that students should be looking for, for a higher education.
And I frankly think that many students experienced the last two years while they’ve been shut out of college classes, learning at a distance in an apartment and not being able to interact with their peers and friends but still being charged the same amount of tuition. I think there’s again … a lot of reexamination of what the value of a higher-ed degree is … .
Allen: Yeah. That’s an important question that I think everyone needs to be asking right now. But what are the steps then that the Biden administration should be taking? I mean, what we’ve seen with student loans over the past two years is, most Americans who have them aren’t paying on them.
There’s been deferment as Biden keeps kind of kicking the can down the road saying, “OK, you don’t have to pay back for another six months, another six months, another three months.” This continues to balloon, and this debt is just growing, and yet, many Americans can’t afford to pay off their student loans. Is there a solution to this crisis?
DeVos: Well, the deferment of payment on student loans was meant to be a temporary thing. And it was rightfully so done at the start of the pandemic when we didn’t know what the long-term implications were going to be. But the notion that now more than two years later, we are still in a deferment phase is again untenable, and it’s unfair to the rest of America’s taxpayers.
We’ve accrued over $150 billion in unpaid loan fees that have continued to build as the loans continue to be deferred. Now, on the question of what can be done for students who truly are needing help: First of all, there’s a whole bunch of different income-based repayment plans that they can avail themselves of.
So, start there, find a payment plan that is going to work for you. We also propose, and I think it should be reexamined again, that student loan debt should be able to be a part of a bankruptcy proceeding. Today, it’s currently not. That should be looked at seriously and considered.
But on the other end of the equation, students need to be very … I would argue, have to become more discerning about what they’re buying when they pursue higher education. One of the things we did was, add a whole lot of data to the college scorecard so you can go and see what your proposed field of study is going to cost you at an institution. And then, importantly, what you’re likely to earn in the year after graduation. And then all of the data will continue to be added to that.
So, there will be a longitudinal value for what you would earn pursuing a specific degree, a specific field of study at a specific institution, you can compare institutions. So, there’s a lot of tools for students to use, and I would encourage all students to do that as they’re doing their due diligence.
Evans: The only entity that seems to be winning in this scenario are these big universities. These big public universities, their endowments have never been higher, but at the same time, their curriculum and their professors have never been more leftist and really blatantly sexist and racist.
How do we kind of pull in these universities, both in terms of spending, but also with these radical ideologies that they’re pushing?
DeVos: Well, I think as we’ve done, we keep exposing where it’s happening. And I think there’s less and less tolerance on the part of more and more Americans for a lack of free speech, a lack of idea exchange, of debate. That’s, after all, one of the primary goals of pursuing higher education, is to really sharpen and hone your own philosophies and your own ideas. You can only do that when you have an exchange of ideas, and we’ve seen on far too many college campuses, just a denial of that opportunity.
The more that is exposed, I believe, the more Americans are going to really question the value of pursuing some of these experiences, specific institutions, and higher education in general, because we know that there are millions of jobs open today that don’t require a higher-ed degree, a bachelor’s degree or higher.
And so the value proposition for higher education is going to continue to be called into question, and rightfully so.
Allen: Do you think that with so many of these universities being so far left, so radical, that taxpayer funds should stop going to these leftist public universities?
DeVos: Well, I think the more we can do to give people tools to evaluate where they’re going to take on student debt, where they’re going to pursue an education, and the more we expose the institutions that are not truly providing a free exchange of ideas, I think people are going to start to self-select out of these institutions. And again, I think that will be a healthy thing.
Another thing that I think we’re going to see developing more and more are alternative higher-ed pathways that … . We really reformed accreditation while we were in office. The accreditors have always been the gatekeepers for higher-ed institutions, and they’ve, of course, been very incestuous because they’ll all evaluate one another and keep everybody in their same little club, while adding new options and new pathways for new providers and new approaches is going to, again, give students a much wider range of opportunity.
And we can help that by highlighting and by telling the stories about some of these alternatives that may be fledgling today, but that will be forces tomorrow. But I also think about some of the traditional institutions like Purdue University, and President Mitch Daniels there has been absolutely fearless, first of all, in controlling costs on behalf of and for students. And secondly, on continuing to insist that a higher-ed institution, a higher-ed experience by definition needs to be a free and open place for exchange of ideas.
And more should be looking to leaders like Mitch Daniels to emulate that experience and that opportunity. And I think, again, those that are ultimately going to be successful in the long run will begin to be much more serious about those elements.
Allen: Yeah. Secretary DeVos, you know firsthand the challenges of addressing all of these issues as the former secretary of education all the way from K-12 education to at the university level. Our current secretary of education is Miguel Cardona. How would you rate him if you had to give him a score so far on how he’s doing it at his job?
DeVos: Well, I would have to say, if I were grading, I would say an “F” because he’s not focused on doing things that are right for kids and for students. Our focus was always on doing the right thing for students. It’s clear that he listens to the adult interests, the systems, the institutions, the school unions, all of those who had, in the last couple of years, a history of doing the absolute wrong thing for students. And so he has demonstrated that he is really sort of a pawn of the system and not an advocate for students.
Evans: Secretary, this is the last question. And so I’m going to make it a two-parter. And first, the Trump administration received more hate than any administration, probably in American history, by the media. And I think specifically the women of the administration were really just treated unfairly and portrayed poorly—Sarah Sanders, Melania, yourself—probably might even been the main target.
Now that you have some space, do you have any kind of feelings on that? Does it still bother you the way that you were treated? And then the second part of that question is: Would you consider yourself a feminist?
DeVos: Well, I never dwelled on how I was treated. I stayed focused on doing the right thing for kids every day. And I had a lot of experience in politics before coming to Washington, and so I was not a stranger to opposition, but the ferocity of the opposition was, I think, on some occasions surprising.
But it was easy for me to stay focused on what I was there to do, and that was advocate for students and their futures, and policies that would support them and their learning. And so with regard to how I view feminism and all of the debate around that, I’m just for an equal opportunity for every human being to be able to pursue what they’re wired up and innately talented to do.
And if that makes me a feminist, I guess I am. But I don’t get really stuck on labels. I just want to stay focused on advocating for equal opportunities for everyone.
Evans: That might be one of my favorite answers I’ve ever heard.
Allen: Yeah, that was great. Secretary, thank you, this has been such a pleasure. We really appreciate your time today.
DeVos: Well, thanks so much, Virginia and Lauren. It’s great to be with you.
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