Education Secretary Defends Free Community College, Student Debt Cancellation in Congressional Hearing

Representatives requested Sec. Miguel Cardona's testimony on the Biden administration's 2024 budget, but the conversation focused on other hot topics such as transgender student participation in sports.
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  • Education Secretary Miguel Cardona appeared Tuesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
  • The hearing was meant to question the secretary on the Biden administration's funding proposal for the Department of Education.
  • Higher education discussions centered on student loan forgiveness and free community college.
  • Transgender student participation in sports was also a hot topic throughout the hearing.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona fielded questions from lawmakers Tuesday, with an emphasis on President Joe Biden's plan to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce requested Cardona for a hearing to discuss Biden's fiscal year 2024 budget proposal for the Department of Education (ED). The conversation, however, rarely dipped into budget discussions and instead centered on a handful of higher education issues that have become hot topics over the past year.

Those issues included:

  • Student loan debt cancellation
  • Free community college
  • Online program management companies
  • Transgender athlete participation in sports
  • Proposed cuts to ED budget from Republicans

Republicans, Democrats Divided on Debt Cancellation

Unsurprisingly, Biden's plan to wipe student loan debt for borrowers making less than $125,000 per year was a highly partisan issue.

A common line of questioning among Republican U.S. House of Representatives members was to ask Cardona whether the one-time cancellation plan was fair to those who never took out loans to attend college. Rep. Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania called it "unacceptable" to ask taxpayers to shoulder the burden of others.

Cardona responded that over 90% of those who would benefit from the plan make less than $75,000 per year.

He also reiterated that the program aims to prevent borrowers from defaulting on their loans once the payment pause lifts in the third quarter of this year.

A few Democrats, meanwhile, voiced continued support for the president's debt relief program.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat representing Minnesota, questioned ED's ability to carry out this program if the U.S. Supreme Court rules it is lawful this summer. Cardona responded that the department's budget request for an increase in funding for Federal Student Aid (FSA) is vital to ensuring borrowers aren't left behind when payments resume.

Support for Free Community College

Biden's budget includes two proposals for free community college: A $90 billion program and a $500 million proposal.

One expert told BestColleges the cheaper plan is the more feasible option this year. However, discussions during Tuesday's hearing didn't center on any specific proposal, just the need for free community college generally.

Democrats Susan Wild of Pennsylvania and Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico voiced support for free community college during the hearing.

Cardona stressed that expanding access to two-year institutions is vital in lengthening the pipeline to the workforce or four-year institutions. It's also a critical workforce development tool, he said.

"To me," he said, "universal community college is an investment in our local economy and our nation's economy."

No Republicans voiced support for free community college, nor did any oppose either proposal.

OPMs Join the Conversation

The oversight of online program management (OPM) companies has largely been a niche higher education issue until now.

Tuesday's hearing proved that the issue has become more mainstream in recent months. Democrats Mark Takano of California and Alma Adams of North Carolina questioned Cardona on newly proposed oversight of third-party servicers, including OPMs.

Takano was concerned that OPMs may be luring students into programs without a strong return on investment (ROI). He seemingly supported an end to allowing OPMs to enter into incentive-based compensation plans with colleges and universities.

Adams, meanwhile, was more concerned with how ED's proposed rules could impact minority-serving institutions (MSIs) that may rely on OPMs to administer their online programs. She said having online degree programs became essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, and OPMs helped bridge the gap for MSIs that needed to expand into this area on short notice.

Cardona said he welcomes feedback on this topic, as the department still needs to finalize a rule on OPMs and third-party servicers.

"I recognize that in many cases, students are welcoming these opportunities, but we also have to make sure that oversight is there," he said.

Title IX Regulations Remain a Hot Button Issue

Many Republicans used their five minutes of speaking time to rail against ED's newly proposed Title IX rewrite centered on transgender students' participation in sports.

The department's initial proposal forbids unilateral bans on transgender students participating on a sports team that matches their gender identity. However, it does allow for bans in some sports and at competitive levels where there may be an issue of "fairness."

Many Republicans centered their lines of questioning around whether it is fair to allow transgender women to participate on women's sports teams.

Throughout most of the hearing, Cardona reiterated that the proposal only limits unilateral bans and doesn't make blanket decisions on transgender participation in sports.

After numerous questions that included transphobic language, Cardona eventually declared ED's stance.

"I believe the harassment and discrimination against transgender students is something that is rampant in this country, and as a department, we are proposing regulations to make sure that all students are seen and valued for all they are," Cardona said.

Most Democrats stayed away from the topic throughout the hearing.

Debt Ceiling Negotiations Seep Into ED Discussion

Debt ceiling negotiations are still underway, but the Republican plan to slash spending — including to ED — was a centerpiece of many discussions during Tuesday's hearing.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy's proposal would return ED funding to 2022 levels, representatives said. That would constitute a 22% cut to higher education programs like Pell Grants and federal TRIO programs, which make college more affordable for low- and middle-income students.

Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia said she was disappointed in the attempt to cut funding for these programs. She asked Cardona to elaborate on what impact such cuts would have.

Cardona said Pell Grants in particular help level the playing field for students so that higher educational attainment is about ability, not wealth. He said such cuts would most severely impact first-generation students.