Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calls student debt cancellation and tuition-free college 'wrong.' Education Secretary Betsy Devos
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calls student debt cancellation 'wrong,' signalling a disconnect with millions of non-wealthy Americans staring down a crisis in the cost of higher education.

Student debt cancellation and tuition-free public college may seem “wrong” or extreme to DeVos, whose family is worth billions, but they reflect the severity of the crisis staring down students in America’s higher education system.

Betsy DeVos, an ideologue billionaire who has spent her time as Education Secretary waging war on public schools and working to gut public education funding, on Tuesday criticized ideas to help level the playing field by canceling student debt and offering tuition-free college to many Americans.

Appearing at an Education Department financial aid conference, DeVos implicitly criticized progressive lawmakers for embracing the “truly insidious notion of government gift-giving,” indicating that to her, the very idea that the government might actually help poor people is an anathema. 

“We’ve heard shrill calls to cancel, to forgive, to make it all free,” DeVos said in her speech. “Any innocuous label out there can’t obfuscate what it really is: Wrong.”

DeVos made her comments in reference to various proposals from Democrats, including one from Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who have called on President-elect Joe Biden to issue an executive order canceling up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per person. The proposal would eliminate the debt burden for roughly 75% of borrowers. Biden, meanwhile, has thus far embraced $10,000 in federal loan cancellation per individual and wants to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all families with incomes below $125,000 per year.

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DeVos—an ardent proponent of privately run, publicly funded charter schools—called Biden’s tuition-free college proposal “a matter of total government control” and “a socialist takeover of higher education,” claiming without evidence that it would lead to a “rationing of state-approved higher-education options,” and lead to the failure of colleges and universities. 

Those proposals may seem “wrong” or extreme to DeVos, who owns a $40 million yacht and whose family is worth more than $5 billion, but they reflect the severity of the crisis staring down those who dare pursue opportunity via America’s higher education system. While higher education was affordable for many in the Baby Boomer generation, costs have surged over the past 30 years while the proportion of public funding has fallen.

In 1988, tuition comprised only about a quarter of the total revenue for public colleges and universities, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, with state and local governments picking up the remaining three-quarters. But in the late 1980s, state governments—embracing a similar ideology as DeVos—began slashing funding for higher education, all while more Americans than ever before sought college degrees in order to improve their job prospects. 

As a result, students are now responsible for nearly half of colleges’ revenue via their tuition. And as the years ticked by and the cost of higher education surged, so too did the amount students borrowed. Among the class of 2019, 69% of college students took out student loans and graduated with an average of $29,900 in debt. In total, nearly 45 million borrowers in the United States collectively owe $1.6 trillion in student loan debt.

The crush of debt has devastated millions of Americans, particularly millennials,  millions of whom are delaying getting marriedhaving kids and buying homes because of student loan debt.

Study after study has also shown that student loan debt has widened the racial wealth gap, as a higher percentage of Black students take out loans than white students and those loans tend to be larger because of the existing, decades-long wealth disparity between white and Black families. Black graduates with Bachelor’s degrees are also significantly more likely to default on their loans than white borrowers.

Student loan debt can also have devastating mental health consequences. According to a recent survey of readers from financial coaching company Student Loan Planner, nine in 10 borrowers experienced “significant anxiety” due to their loan burden and 53% of high debt student loan borrowers experienced depression over their debt. Perhaps most starkly, one in 15 student loan borrowers surveyed said they had considered committing suicide over their burden.

DeVos didn’t comment on those issues, instead saying that any efforts to cancel loans or provide tuition-free education would be costly. “Somebody, somewhere pays the bill,” she said. “And the bill is coming due.”

Under President-elect Biden’s tax plan, that “somebody, somewhere” would be her, her fellow billionaires, and giant corporations like Amazon which have previously avoided paying federal income taxes. 

DeVos also failed to mention the fact that since she’s taken office, she consistently worked to impose restrictions on borrowers who sought to obtain loan cancellation through existing federal programs. She also ignored the reality that 30 states already offer tuition-free education at community colleges or universities, and that the ideas of loan cancellation and tuition-free college are both broadly popular.

Nearly two-thirds of US adults (63%) support making tuition at public colleges free, according to a January Pew Research Center survey. Poll after poll has also shown that majorities of Americans support canceling student loan debt in some form.

DeVos’ comments quickly drew backlash from progressives, including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who pointed out the hypocrisy of DeVos’ rhetoric.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also criticized DeVos’ comments on Tuesday. 

“How is it that 1 of the wealthiest people in the world would be so tone deaf about opportunity,” Weingarten tweeted. “Every student should have access to college, as she/he/ they have access to k-12, and cost should not be an issue. That’s an American value.”