Legislative Activity

House Oversight Committee to Hold FAFSA Tool Hearing

The House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday, May 3 to examine the data breach that led the federal government to disable the IRS tool that assists students in applying for federal student aid. At least one Department of Education official is expected to testify, but the witness list has not yet been released.

This hearing follows a warning from the Committee to Secretary DeVos telling her cybersecurity at the Department falls short of what is expected, citing a Government Accountability Office and Inspector General review. The Committee originally asked for a plan to address the cybersecurity issues by April 13.

In response to the outage, the Department of Education’s will post a draft version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2018-2019 academic year and will be accepting public comment for the next 60 days on the form. Most of the changes from last year’s version appear to be minor or technical, but the most critical include tweaks to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool “to enhance the privacy of applicant and parent IRS tax return information.” The Department also plans to allow families who filed an amended tax return to use the tool, which has been suspended since March when federal officials discovered that identify thieves had used it to file fraudulent tax returns.

The Education Department also plans, at some point during the next school year, to update the online version of the FAFSA with a design that will make it more user-friendly to students accessing the form on mobile devices. The Department also plans to integrate the FAFSA with the College Scorecard, the data about colleges that the Obama administration first released in 2015.

Additionally,  Department officials wrote in a Dear Colleague letter that “in response to concerns about the impact” of taking the tool offline, colleges and universities can accept a signed 2015 tax return as income documentation so students don’t have to ask the IRS to give them a tax transcript. The changes had been sought by colleges and universities and advocates for low-income students.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce Holds Hearing on Accreditation

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), held a hearing to examine the accreditation system and identify ways to improve accountability in higher education. This hearing is the latest step in the Committee’s continued effort to help strengthen higher education for current and future generations of students. The Committee has identified several principles to guide higher education reform, including providing accountability and transparency to students, families, and taxpayers. Witnesses also agreed that the accreditation process should focus more on student outcomes and less on compliance.

Bipartisan Group of Senators Urge Secretary to Keep Dual Enrollment Pilot Programs

A bipartisan group of Senators is calling on Secretary DeVos to keep an Obama-era pilot program that makes Pell Grants available to high school students who are simultaneously taking college courses. Last year, the Obama Administration allowed more than 40 colleges and universities to participate in the pilot program, which benefits an estimated 10,000 students at a cost of roughly $20 million. Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH), Mark Warner (D-VA), and 14 other Senators asked Secretary DeVos in a letter to “continue this experiment and determine an appropriate mechanism for evaluating this important project.” The Senators wrote that dual enrollment and early college high school programs are “effective tools for improving colleges access, affordability, and completion, particularly for low-income and middle class students.”

Secretary DeVos has praised dual enrollment programs, but has not committed to keeping the pilot program which operates under the Department’s “experimental sites” authority to allow the Secretary to waive some regulatory requirements regarding federal financial aid in order to experiment with innovative education strategies.

This Week’s Hearings:

  • On Wednesday, May 3, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled a hearing titled “Reviewing the FAFSA Data Breach.”

Regulatory Activity

Department of Education Staffing

As the Trump Administration hit the 100-day mark last Saturday, important positions at the Department of Education remain unfilled and the lack of staff has delayed the Department’s ability to roll out promises President Donald Trump made during his campaign, including a school choice initiative. Some inside the Department have said Secretary DeVos has offered names for staff, but the White House has been very involved in staffing decisions and has rejected candidates for political reasons, despite impressive resumes.

Currently, most high level positions are staffed with “acting” officials, and no nominees have been named to take the jobs. For example, Jim Manning is serving as the acting undersecretary and will return to his actual job of senior adviser to the undersecretary once his replacement is confirmed. Candice Jackson is serving as acting head of the Office for Civil Rights, but she was appointed to be that assistant secretary’s deputy. Jason Botel, who has been named acting assistant secretary at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, is in a similar position: he was appointed to serve as deputy after briefly serving as White House education adviser.

Initially, Secretary DeVos considered eliminating the undersecretary position, which would have consolidated her own power. However following her confirmation, she appointed Manning to serve as an acting undersecretary. During the campaign, President Trump talked about downsizing the Department, if not eliminating it completely, and he has since tasked his agency heads with looking at ways to reduce staff.

In terms of recent hires, the Department announced it would hire Liz Hill as press secretary, who most recently  served as communications director for Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). Finally, Peter Oppenheim, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), education policy director and counsel, is a rumored to be a contender for assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs at the Department. The position requires Senate confirmation, and would make him a liaison between the Department and Congress. Mr. Oppenheim was a key figure in drafting and passing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), among other bills.

Borrower Defense to Repayment Claims Slow under Trump Administration

The Trump Administration has seemingly slowed the Department’s approval of borrower defense to repayment claims, which allow student borrowers to have their federal loans canceled on the grounds their colleges defrauded them. Department officials with knowledge of the process have said the process for approving claims has slowed dramatically since January, but a spokesman for the Department said it has not stopped approving claims and declined to comment on how many had been approved since January 20.  The spokesman said that Department career staff members are leading “a full review” of the Borrower Defense to Repayment program and that Secretary DeVos “is committed to protecting students who have been defrauded by schools.”

More than 88,000 federal student loan borrowers have petitioned the Department to wipe out their loans based on fraud in recent years, according to statistics provided by the Obama Administration, though that number is almost certainly higher now. The vast majority of those claims remain outstanding. The Obama Administration reported in its last week in office that it had approved $558 million worth of claims for more than 28,000 students who attended the former Corinthian Colleges, which collapsed three years ago amid allegations of fraud and deception at its dozens of campuses. The Department has also received claims from former students of ITT Tech and other for-profit schools.

Secretary DeVos is already facing two federal lawsuits in Massachusetts and California brought by former for-profit college students who say they are not receiving the loan discharges to which they are entitled under federal law. Additionally, more lawsuits could follow, especially if the Department fails to execute the loan forgiveness of previously approved claims. Several officials said that the Department has failed to expunge the debt of borrowers whose claims had already been approved by the Obama Administration. The Department could be especially vulnerable to legal challenges if it declines to forgive loans for borrowers whose peers attending the same school at the same time had their loans canceled.

Congressional Republicans have expressed concerns about the taxpayer costs associated with making loan forgiveness, especially through the Borrower Defense to Repayment Rule, but passed on a chance to get rid of the using the Congressional Review Act earlier this year.