Education Secretary Testifies on Student Debt Cancellation, College Affordability

Miguel Cardona answered questions on hot-button higher ed issues during a House Education and Labor Committee hearing.

May 27, 2022 · Updated on May 27, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Education Secretary Testifies on Student Debt Cancellation, College Affordability
Higher Ed Policy
Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / Contributor / AFP / Getty Images

  • Higher ed issues took a back seat to school safety issues during the hearing.
  • Cardona sought to justify higher ed funding proposals in President Biden's latest budget.
  • Cardona had little to say about the Biden administration's plans for widespread student debt cancelation

Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona's testimony at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing Thursday was overshadowed by the massacre of 19 students and two teachers at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school.

But while school safety dominated the hearing, which was scheduled to discuss his department's budget and priorities, committee members and Cardona still covered a litany of higher education issues.

Student debt forgiveness was the higher ed issue raised most often, with Republican members voicing opposition to the Biden administration's reported plans for widespread cancellation.

However, other issues also got ample discussion time, including policies addressing college affordability, Title IX rules regarding gender discrimination, and college admissions transparency.

Here's how Cardona addressed these hot-button higher education topics:

Timeline for Student Debt Cancellation Ambiguous

President Joe Biden is reportedly going to move to cancel large chunks of student debt in the coming weeks or months.

However, Cardona had little to say about any timeline for such relief.

"With regard to broad-based student loan forgiveness, the conversations are ongoing," he said in a response to a question about when to expect an announcement from the president. "I have nothing to share on that."

A handful of Republicans took issue with any commitment toward widespread debt relief. U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the Republican ranking member in the committee, led the charge against this policy. She questioned whether Biden has the authority to cancel debt without congressional approval.

"[It is an] illegal shifting of responsibility from the person who took out a loan for college to taxpayers who didn't even get the opportunity to attempt to get a degree," she said in her closing remarks.

She also questioned Cardona on ED's limited waiver programs that allow more borrowers to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and income-driven repayment (IDR) discharge. She said these waivers expand the programs "well past" their scopes and turn already expensive programs into "open-ended forgiveness."

Cardona, meanwhile, stood by the department's waivers, especially the PSLF waiver.

He said before the waiver, ED approved just 2% of PSLF discharge applications. To date, 127,000 have had their loans canceled as a direct result of the waiver.

College Affordability a Top Concern

A common line of questioning from representatives of both parties concerned college affordability. Several committee members asked variations of the question: If student debt is canceled, how will ED address issues so that current and future students aren't saddled with excessive debt?

Cardona routinely pointed to Pell Grant expansion as a potential answer to the affordability issue.

Biden proposed a plan to double the maximum Pell Grant award by 2029. His proposed 2023 budget includes a 25.7% increase from what Congress approved for the 2022 budget. The 2022 budget included a 6.2% increase from the prior year's maximum award.

Pell Grants are the primary financial aid awards for low- and middle-income students attending college. And nearly 7 million students benefit from them yearly.

Cardona said the maximum Pell Grant award covered 100% of the cost of community college, on average, in 1979. Now, the max award only covers about 52%, which is the driving reason necessitating the increase.

"College affordability is like a runaway train, and we are trying to get ahead of that," he said.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, a Republican representing Wisconsin, questioned ED on its proposal for Dreamers to have access to Pell Grants. Cardona stood by the proposal, stating that it's important to ensure Dreamers have the opportunity for financial aid. He added that the increase would apply to all students, so nobody would potentially miss out on aid because of the inclusion of Dreamers.

Cardona also repeatedly stressed the need for increased funding for institutions as a means of lowering costs for students. He highlighted the importance of continued investment in minority-serving institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs).

Title IX Rule Rewrite Sparks Debate

ED is working on a partial rewrite of Title IX rules, which concern discrimination based on sex in educational programs.

The department first promised to release a draft of these new rules in April. Repeated delays have pushed that expectation to June. Representatives were eager to hear what will be included in those rules during Thursday's hearing.

"I'm looking forward to seeing new Title IX rules," ranking Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia said in his opening remarks.

Much of the discussion surrounding Title IX was in reference to how it'll impact K-12 education. However, some of the issues bleed into higher education. For example, a contentious back-and-forth between Cardona and Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana revolved around transgender athletes in sports, an issue that also affects college athletics.

Cardona concluded that "our transgender students need to feel supported and seen."

ED's upcoming Title IX rules are expected to touch on gender identity and offer protections for transgender students. Cardona, however, offered no details on specific changes during Thursday's hearing.

Foxx encouraged Cardona to commit to briefing the committee again on all proposed Title IX changes once the department releases new language.

Affirmative Action and College Admissions Concerns

With the Supreme Court set to hear a case involving affirmative action in college admissions, it's no surprise representatives were interested in hearing the department's view on the issue.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel, a Republican representing California, raised the possibility that personality tests at prestigious universities may discriminate against Asian students.

Her line of questioning mirrored concerns raised by the conservative nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions, which filed the cases against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that will go before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Steel claimed that judging applicants on personality traits like "likability" and "courage" leads to discrimination against Asian applicants.

"How is this not discrimination?" she asked. "Is it OK for a university to discriminate against a student because they are Asian?"

Cardona agreed with Steel, stating that there should be transparency in college admissions. If colleges are to use personality tests, there should be clear outlines for how they evaluate applicants in this step of the process, he said.

"It should be very clear how the decisions are being made," he said. "I think that's incredibly important."