Dear Joe Biden,
No one should be forced to mortgage their future for an education, yet 45 million of us have been forced to do just that. Today the total amount of student debt stands at $1.7tn, and it keeps growing. This is a direct result of decades of divestment in public funding and the privatization of higher education into a for-profit industry. This broken system has shifted the burden of financing higher education on to individual students and households, disproportionately harming Black, Brown, immigrant and low-income communities. Bold solutions are required to address the harms this policy failure has caused. These solutions can start with the personnel staffing the US Department of Education.
As bad as Betsy DeVos is, most of the problems with our higher education system predate her. When President Obama was in office, debtors and advocates sounded the alarm about soaring tuition, mounting student debt, predatory loan servicers, criminal for-profit colleges and more, but their warnings went unheeded.
Under the leadership of Arne Duncan, John King and Ted Mitchell, the Department of Education fundamentally failed to listen to and protect their constituents. Under their watch, the total amount of student debt doubled, surpassing the total amount of credit card debt for the first time in history. They sat by and allowed impoverished and elderly borrowers’ social security to be garnished. Several Obama administration officials became investors in the predatory for-profit Apollo Education, including Tony Miller, Obama’s former deputy secretary of the education department. And despite public outcry over abuses, Ted Mitchell fought to keep predatory for-profit schools alive, approved the sale of these schools to ECMC (an abusive debt collection company), and now serves as president of the American Council on Education lobbying against mass student debt cancellation.
Meanwhile, the students who were defrauded by predatory for-profit schools continue to wait for justice. The education secretary, Arne Duncan, promised them: “If you’ve been defrauded by a school, we’ll make sure that you get every penny of the debt relief you are entitled to through … as streamlined a process as possible.” He broke that promise. And there are hundreds of other Obama Department of Education officials with a history of failing students who are just waiting to waltz back in through the revolving door.
Student debtors cannot afford another Democratic administration that sells them out and sells them short. A Biden administration must make a clean break from this history. It is time for a new Department of Education staffed with champions who will fight for students. You should appoint strong advocates to fight for students and real solutions to the student debt crisis.
Additionally the Department of Education Organization Act allows the president to appoint up to four assistant secretaries of education. As president, you should fill all four of these positions.
You should commit to appointing:
A secretary of education who will use the authority Congress has already granted the secretary to cancel student debt on their first day in office. During the primary, Elizabeth Warren promised to use the department’s full “compromise and settlement” authority to provide student loan relief, and in March the Trump administration actually did, though the relief they provided was woefully inadequate. Nevertheless, the move was significant because it is a further recognition of the government’s broad power to cancel student debt. A Biden administration will be inheriting an economic depression and a global health crisis, alongside Mitch McConnell promising to be the “grim reaper” killing any policies designed to help people. Canceling student debt via the Department of Education bypasses McConnell, and is a direct way to stimulate the economy (estimated at a $1tn stimulus over 10 years) and create millions of new jobs. With people’s lives – and livelihoods – at stake, it would be cruel and unnecessary for the Department of Education to continue profiting from student debt. We cannot afford the economic damage this debt causes to American households.
An assistant secretary of education dedicated to enforcement. As president, you should appoint an assistant secretary dedicated strictly to enforcing the regulations already on the books. By simply enforcing its own regulations, the Department of Education could fundamentally reshape how higher education functions and is financed. For decades now, it has tolerated a wild west approach, allowing scam accreditation agencies, predatory for-profit schools (which amass huge profits by exploiting low-income communities), and law-breaking debt collectors and loan servicers to flourish. We need someone at the Department of Education who can shut down these corrupt agencies, for-profit schools and abusive servicers and debt collectors once and for all.
An assistant secretary dedicated to racial justice and racial equity. This goes beyond merely protecting civil rights; our education system is fundamentally racist, from the disparities in K-12 funding, to persistent “legalized” segregation, to discriminatory enrollment practices and the deeply racialized nature of student debt. (Study after study after study after study after study after study have shown that student debt is a driver of the racial wealth gap, and that the more student debt we cancel, the better it is for Black and Brown borrowers.) This position should be given full rein to examine how white supremacy functions at every level of our educational system and how our system must change on deep structural levels to repair and redress these inequities.
By making these commitments you can show the 45 million voters struggling with student debt and the millions of would-be college students that you take their pain seriously. During the Obama administration we organized protests to mark what we called “1T Day,” the day student debt surpassed $1tn. Unless real solutions like College for All are enacted, we will be marking 2T Day during a Biden administration.
A generation ago, college was basically free. As a result, many elected officials were able to graduate without taking out student loans. Over the last few decades, millions of students have suffered from a policy failure that developed on their watch – a policy failure that we know how to fix. You can show that you are committed to staffing a Department of Education that will fight for students, stand for racial justice, and help build a fair, equitable and debt-free higher education system.