Betsy DeVos is exceptionally good at her job. Not at running the Department of Education, that is, her tenure there has been an undeniable train wreck and she's repeatedly shown that she barely understands the laws around public education and student rights. But she is good at her job as she seems to understand it, and that is to undermine public education and give as much cover and support as she can to the perpetrators of the student debt crisis.
Her work to undermine the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is one of the most clear cut examples. In theory, the program is designed to forgive the student debt of people who spend ten years working in public service while making steady payments. In September, CNBC reported that out of the 30,000 people who applied as the program finally hit the ten year mark, only 96 qualified.
Now, DeVos doesn't necessarily have the authority to end the program outright. Instead, she's successfully allowed enough road blocks to make that debt forgiveness all but impossible for the 99.9968 percent of people who were ruled out. It's a common conservative tactic: make welfare programs so difficult to access that they may as well not exist. NPR gives a very concise explanation:
Today, the U.S. Department of Education is, essentially, a trillion-dollar bank, serving more than 40 million student borrowers. While the government writes these student loans, it simply cannot run the call centers or handle the paperwork for so many borrowers. It needs help. So it pays companies—the department has contracts with nine of them—to handle customer service. These servicers, as they're known, are glorified record-keepers and debt collectors. But they're also powerful gatekeepers.
DeVos has essentially empowered these gatekeepers to be more exacting and punishing than anyone could reasonably expect them to be. Many applicants were rejected because of technical minutiae. In many other cases, borrowers actually could have qualified for PSLF but the servicers never told them it was an option. They operate with almost no effective oversight from the Education Department, and even conservative states have tried to step in to impose regulations and accountability. And how did Betsy DeVos, small government activist, respond to that? By saying that since the servicers work for the federal government, they don't have to listen to a damn thing the states say. It turns out that she's a fan of big government when she can use it to wring even more money out of broke public servants.
It's against this backdrop that conservative pundits are trying desperately to cast free college and student loan forgiveness as some kind of boogeyman. But they're right to be desperate. The current system is indefensible, especially if someone as unqualified and inexperienced as DeVos can step in and destroy what minor relief efforts already exist. Student debt has tripled in the last 20 years, reaching $1.52 trillion at the start of 2018, and no one outside of DeVos's tax bracket is benefitting from that. By contrast, student loan forgiveness isn't just morally right, it's an easy sell. Any Democrat who fails to make that a priority doesn't deserve to survive their next primary.