Episode 36: What Colleges Can Expect From Miguel Cardona's Education Department


​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired February 11, 2021

ACE President Ted Mitchell joins Jon, Sarah, and Mushtaq to talk about his impressions of incoming Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona and about his own experience working in the Education Department. The hosts kick off the episode talking about legislation making way through the new Congress, including a COVID relief bill, the DREAM Act, and recent staffing announcements at the Department of Education.​​

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

ACE Annual Meeting 2021​

Democrats Plow Ahead With a Party-Line Covid Relief Package
Politico | Feb. 2, 2021

Statement by ACE President Ted Mitchell on Higher Education Emergency Relief Funding

Statement by ACE President Ted Mitchell on the Senate Confirmation Hearing of Secretary of Education-designate Miguel A. Cardona

Five Key Moments From Education Secretary Nominee Miguel Cardona’s Confirmation Hearing
The Washington Post | Feb. 3, 2021

Letter to Incoming Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Emergency Relief Funding Distribution

Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper Tapped to U.S. Department of Education Post
Diverse: Issues In Higher Education | Feb. 4, 2021

Hosts and Guests

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. I'm your host Jon Fansmith, and I'm here with my amazing co-hosts Mushtaq Gunja and Sarah Spreitzer. Hey, guys.

Sarah Spreitzer: Hey Jon, hey Mushtaq.

Mushtaq Gunja: Hi Sarah, hi Jon. How are you?

Sarah Spreitzer: Great.

Jon Fansmith: Doing well. And in a little bit, we're going to be joined by someone we all know very, very well. ACE's President Ted Mitchell, he'll be on with us to talk about the higher education landscape, but particularly the new Biden Administration, and particularly the Department of Education under the Administration. And what the landscape is for higher education, working with those folks going forward. But, before we get to that-

Mushtaq Gunja: Hey Sarah, today starts impeachment trial number two.

Sarah Spreitzer: I know, I'm so excited.

Mushtaq Gunja: Donald Trump. Do you have different watching plans for impeaching trial number two than you did for impeachment trial number one?

Sarah Spreitzer: I have to say, I'm not likely going to watch it because I've been working a lot on a few other issues. So impeachment is pretty low on my list of priorities, I don't know. How about you?

Mushtaq Gunja: From a law professor point of view, it's all super fascinating. I'm teaching evidence this semester, and there are all sorts of fun evidentiary issues. You know, what might be able to come in if this were a formal trial as opposed to an impeachment hearing, so always looking for that sort of thing. But, the energy around impeachment feels a little bit different, given that we have others things to worry about with the actual new Administration.

Sarah Spreitzer: There's a lot going on, for as much as I enjoy arcane Senate rules. I know Jon has been very busy teeing up reconciliation for us, getting that done.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. And speaking of arcane rules and people who love them, the reconciliation really is, even more than impeachment I would argue, Mushtaq. It's really the Holy Grail of arcane processes in Congress. But, it's important. There's a reason why we're talking about it right now. Which is, as a matter of fact, as we record this on a Tuesday, the Education Labor Committee in the House is going to mark up, they're going to consider the first piece of their reconciliation bill. I think people probably don't care that much about the reconciliation aspect of it, they care that this is a massive COVID relief bill, $1.9 trillion roughly in spending. It's going to have all sorts of elements, including direct payments to citizens, and funding across the board for COVID testing, and COVID vaccination, and building backbones in infrastructure to accomplish those things. We care about it because there's $40 billion, almost $40 billion, in relief funds for students and institutions. And particularly, there's some things in there about how that money's being sent out that are different than what Congress has done before. In particular, lettings schools decide which of their students need the funds. Previously, there had been limitations put in place that I think, particularly from our perspective with DACA recipients, undocumented students were precluded from getting that aid. At least, if this bill stays the way it's drafted right now, those students would finally be able to get some of this aid. We know, obviously, it's a critical need for them.

Some other things in there that are great. I think there was some worries, when we first saw the Biden proposal, that private non-profit institutions wouldn't be eligible to receive the funds. There was some confusion around the language with which that plan was released. We now have the bill text, we know that private non-profit institutions are treated on the same terms as not only their public colleagues, but as they have been in previous rounds of relief, so those concerns are put to rest. All in all, we've been saying for a while, "We need $97 billion," 40 billion isn't $97 billion. I'll do the math for everyone. $40 billion is still the largest amount of support the Federal government's provided so far. It would have been great if they had done it last March instead of this January, but we are really very appreciative of the amount of money and we know it'll do a lot of good.

Sarah Spreitzer: However, we still have our request out, Jon, for $26 billion for research relief, which would be funds that would go through the Federal research agencies, not directly to our institutions. But, I think that's going to be harder to get done through reconciliation, right?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. We started by talking about the Holy Grail of arcane processes. Reconciliation, I think you tend to read about it in the news, and what's always highlighted is it's a way to get a bill passed if you don't have 60 votes in the Senate. And that's clearly why it's being used here, you just need simple majorities in both chambers to do it. Which the Democrats in the Senate have the slimmest of simple majorities, they have the tie-breaker vote with the Vice President.

But, there's a lot of other things that go along with reconciliation. It is a very narrowly crafted tool, with lots of limitations on what you can use it for. You can't create new programs. You can't do things that don't have financial impact. These elements of it would keep, even if you included it in the bill, they would get stripped out later. Things like the research support that we and our members are looking for, they're not a good fit for reconciliation. It's a harder thing to work into a reconciliation package. In fact, what we've seen with the package that's being put together is there are elements of it now, like a $15 minimum wage, that are being proposed that very likely may not be in the final bill because they won't be considered relevant under reconciliation. A lot of this is shaped by what the constraints of reconciliation are, and it has a real impact on policy making.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, do you have a sense of how baked that 40 billion, slightly less than $40 billion is? Is there room for that number to increase at this point? Is there room for the mixes to change? Or, do we think that they've basically taken care of what they're going to do, in relation to higher ed, on this bill? Now, they're going to work on the other, I don't know, I can't do the math in my head.

Jon Fansmith: The $1.55 trillion, yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah. They're going to work on the rest? Are we pretty certain this is what is going to end up getting voted on, through the reconciliation process? And then, give us a sense of timing, too.

Jon Fansmith: Sure. It is, it's absolutely baked. I think there's a couple things about this. One is that, like I said, everything is tied to spending in reconciliation, it has to be. The rules by which you put your legislation together tell you exactly how much money you're supposed to either save or spend, those instructions are out, you can't deviate from that. Those are the guidelines by which the bills have to be drafted. They've put those directions together, with the 1.9 trillion plan in mind, this is all coming from that plan. They've really strongly adhered to not just where the money goes, but how much money there is, so this is baked. There wasn't a lot of flexibility. We know Congress probably would have done more for higher ed, if they had the flexibility to go higher in terms of the numbers, but they didn't.

In terms of timing, the big thing, the public goal is March 14th. That's what the last round of unemployment Insurance benefits extensions will expire, there's a number of other provisions that will expire that will have broad economic impact. So, the goal is to have something passed and enacted into law before that date, so there's no interruption to those benefits. Will they be able to do it? They have a very tight timeframe for doing this, I think. You started talking about impeachment. Impeachment sucks up a lot of the Senate's time, and it's starting today, and it's going to go on for a while. So the House is moving forward, the House will hopefully have all of their individual parts of the reconciliation package done by the end of this week. They'll put it on the floor next week, they'll pass it. That will give the Senate something to vote on, hopefully as soon as impeachment's over. That said, the Senate process, the Senate has even tighter rules around what can be in a reconciliation bill than the House does, they have more limits. There will be some things they'll have to address that will just take time. So it's a really tight window to hit that March 14th deadline, but that's certainly the goal right now.

Sarah Spreitzer: And in the meantime, I think the Senate is teeing up things to take, after impeachment and reconciliation, and more regular business. So this last week, we actually saw the Dream Act reintroduced by Senator Durbin and Senator Graham, which is great because it would make the DACA program permanent, and provide a pathway to citizenship for our DACA recipients. It's interesting that Senator Durbin introduced that. Obviously, it's been a bill he's reintroduced every year since 2001. But, we are waiting on a comprehensive immigration bill to come from the Biden White House. The text still seems to be elusive. Senator Menendez from New Jersey is supposed to be introducing it in the Senate, and it would make the DACA program permanent, and provide a pathway to citizenship. So to see Senator Durbin introduce a standalone bill seems to signal that there's going to be some problems moving the immigration legislation in a comprehensive manner, and that we are going to see some piecemeal bills. There's other things in the comprehensive immigration bill that we want to see, like merit-based immigration, addressing the green card backlog, and some other things. We're going to be watching that very closely. But, it seems like they're teeing some things up for life after reconciliation and impeachment.

Jon Fansmith: So Sarah, would you say that we can effectively judge who's the better lobbyist by whether comprehensive immigration reform passes, or the reconciliation bill passes? I think it's a valid indicator, at least, of our relative capabilities.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah. I'm probably not the best person to ask about that, because I also didn't think the tax bill would pass back in 2018, I think it was. I didn't think there was any way they were going to get that done, and then we ended up seeing it at the end of the year. It'd be interesting to go back and visit at the end of this year, to see what the Senate actually gets done. I think reconciliation is definitely a good bet that that's going to pass, much better than comprehensive immigration legislation.

Jon Fansmith: In terms of effectiveness, I know you have been spending a lot of time dealing with the effectiveness of various Federal agencies, as they move through the transition to power, and talking to folks, finding folks, and looping in. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? Let the audience know what's happening right now in Washington.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, just emailing whole departments to figure out whose still there and who might respond to my email. We also saw the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security are both finally confirmed, and people are finally getting into place, which is really important. I know the same thing is happening at the Department of Education. Mushtaq, given your experience, I know you've been following that closely. What's happening at Ed?

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, I sure have. I guess, since we last taped, Secretary Designee Cardona had his confirmation hearing, and he is set for confirmation vote in a couple days, on Thursday. I'm curious what you two think, I thought the hearing went pretty smoothly, from his point of view. I think he's going to get pretty good bipartisan support. He has a very good demeanor, and I think everybody's hoping that he is going to succeed.

Jon Fansmith: Thank God. Didn't ranking member Burr actually say in his opening remarks he "thought he should be confirmed," which is usually a very good sign.

Mushtaq Gunja: I think that's right. I think he might even have encouraged his follow members to vote for Cardona.

Jon Fansmith: Sorry, that's right. Yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: Which is great, education should be important to all Americans, it should be a bipartisan issue. This is good. The team, I think, is slowly but surely coming together. There was a whole list of about a dozen pretty high level political appointees that were announced last week as well, many folks that I worked with when I was chief of staff to the Undersecretary at the Department of Ed in the last couple years of the Obama Administration. So a couple people that are coming back from previous service, and some new folks that we know from our time in Washington, either on the Hill or in the think-tank space, so this is good. It is important for a team to come together, and it'll give us some folks to bounce ideas off of. Or in some cases, continue some conversations that have been going on for 16 years.

Jon Fansmith: Years and years. Well, that's a great segue into our next guest, who is ACE's President Ted Mitchell. But, perhaps more importantly for the purposes of our discussion, the former Undersecretary of Education at the United States Department of Education. I think Ted can maybe expand on some of your thoughts just now, Mushtaq, talk a little about the time the two of you spent working at the Department together in the last few years of the Obama Administration. And highlight, really, where this new Administration is landing, and where the opportunities for higher education are, working with this new Department of Education. That will all be on the plate when we talk to Ted Mitchell, right after this break.

Welcome back. We are now joined by our esteemed president here at ACE, Ted Mitchell. Before we get into what we're going to talk about, Ted, I want to remind you that the last time you came on our podcast, you and Laurel promised to buy me flip-flops. This is roughly nine months later, and I still have yet to receive those flip-flops. I don't want to start this off on a hostile note, but still waiting to hear.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, are you hoping people are going to be listening to this in August? Because it's February, it's going to snow tomorrow. Who's wearing flip-flops right now?

Jon Fansmith: When we discussed it, it was related to the annual meeting which, as we know, didn't quite take place in San Diego as planned. Obviously, given Ted's lag in respond, I figure I've got to get it in, in advance of the summer, so that they arrive in time.

Ted Mitchell: You know Jon, we've moving the annual meeting to a virtual format, so I hope that you'll enjoy the virtual flip-flops.

Jon Fansmith: Arriving in my inbox right now.

Ted Mitchell: Exactly.

Jon Fansmith: Sorry for sidetracking our discussion with sartorial choices. But, the real reason of course, Ted, we have you on is you have worn a number of hats in your career, and have a tremendous range of experiences. But, as we launch into the Biden Administration, one of the ones that's of particular relevance is your time working as the Undersecretary of Education at the Department of Education. As we start to look at where higher education's going, both in this new Congress and this new Administration, in the midst of a pandemic, we thought who better to bring on to talk about some of the challenges, some of the unique circumstances of working in that environment in this situation. So thank you very much for joining us, I know we're going to have a lot of good things to talk about today.

Ted Mitchell: Thanks for having me, Jon.

Mushtaq Gunja: Ted, I think we'll want to talk a little bit about policy priorities, what we think the Department's going to spend its time on. But, I was hoping that we might spend just a second, in the beginning, talking about people. Because as President Obama used to say all the time, "People dictate the policy, people are policy.” I know that you've spent at least a little bit of time with Secretary Designee Cardona, he hasn't quite been confirmed at the taping of this podcast. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how that conversation has gone? And, your first impressions of the Secretary?

Ted Mitchell: Sure. I've even had the opportunity to talk with him a couple times, in semi-public settings and private settings. A couple things. First of all, he's a very impressive guy. He's very, very smart. He's thoughtful, he's deliberative, and consultative. I think from the beginning, he's established that he wants to maintain a positive relationship with the leaders on the K-12 side, leaders on the higher ed side. And started us off, really, with a meeting of higher education association leaders that lasted an hour, and we were able to address our issues with him, and he was able to identify important points of commonality. I'm feeling really good about the Secretary Designate, looking forward to working with him, and looking forward to working with his team. Which is coming together a little bit more slowly, I think, than anybody would like, but it's certainly coming together. It's an impressive group of people.

Mushtaq Gunja: Ted, Secretary Designee Cardona doesn't come to the job with a lot of higher ed experience. Did that issue come up when you talked to him? Do you think he'll be a partner on our higher ed issues?

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, he's been very forthright about that. His background is in K-12, from being a teacher through being a state superintendent. In some of his roles, and his role as state superintendent, he has been a member of the University of Connecticut board so he's had that experience, and that's been an important one. Especially over the last year, as the University of Connecticut, like all of our institutions, has had to manage going into the COVID experience, figuring out what safe college campuses look like. If you had to pick a year for somebody to get their strips in higher education, this was not a bad year.

Mushtaq Gunja: Sure. Ted, you mentioned that the team, the higher ed team is coming together a little bit more slowly than maybe we would like, though it is only the first, second week of February. What happens in an Administration, in your view, when there isn't a huge set of folks that are there to be able to carry out the policy? What's going to happen in the next month or so, do you have any sense?

Ted Mitchell: A little bit, and this comes both from my experience and ours together, Mushtaq, when we were there. But also, from observations that people smarter than me have made about the Administration overall. The first answer is a lot of weight falls on the career staff. These are the folks who have been there, who know the programs, who know the agency, who know what needs to be done on a day-to-day basis. I think what's hard in ed, as in every part of the Administration, is that that group has been hollowed out over the Trump years. Great people have moved on, great people have retired, there are just holes in the depth chart where you really need people to be. I think that that's the first thing that's happening, is that the people who are there I wouldn't say are scrambling, but are really hunkered down, trying to keep the apparatus moving. Second, is that people who are coming in in the political positions, Michelle Cooper as an example, who's coming in from IHEP. They are bringing with them needed networks, needed perspectives, so that career staff can now have folks that they can talk to about what's happening outside the agency. It's that combination of the inside the agency professional competence and the outside of the agency networks that is really going to be essential to making Ed work over the next several years.

Jon Fansmith: I think that's-

Mushtaq Gunja: I'm glad you mentioned ... Sorry, let me just say one quick thing, Jon. I'm glad you mentioned the career staff who are just an excellent, dedicated group of professionals that have been at the Department, the ones that have stayed for, in many cases, decades. The level of expertise that they bring to the job ... The folks that are in OPE, the Office of Post Secondary Education, the higher ed lawyers in the Office of General Council, and the folks over at FSA that make the department work. We don't spend enough time praising them, thinking about them. And certainly, there are a lot of political positions that need to be filled, but there's a great spine, backbone of career staff that make the job, and make the department run. Sorry about that, Jon.

Jon Fansmith: You've already talked about the fact that the career staff, in some ways, has been hollowed out over the past four years. I think one of the other things that we've really noticed about the new team, as they begin to fill in, is first of all, as you pointed out, you know a lot of these people, we all know a lot of these people. Which is a marked change from the last Administration, where there were very, very few people who went in that you knew from prior reference, in any position or any context, that there was an existing relationship where you felt like there was a real dialogue between our community and the Department. Maybe Ted, your thoughts on the group coming in a little bit more, because certainly their names are familiar to a lot of us.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, I think that's exactly right, Jon, and I think that what it suggests is that, from the Secretary Designate straight through the Department, there will be an openness. And, an open communication between the field and the agency, that sometimes was strained in the Obama years. And the people who are coming in, they are knowledgeable, they are passionate, they are no-nonsense, and I think it speaks of very productive relationships between institutions, associations, and the Department. I think we can build on it.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, just to highlight that, the fact that you've already had a few conversations with the Secretary Designate is a welcome difference from the last Administration.

Ted Mitchell: It is, indeed. I noted, when he spoke to the association leadership, that this was the first time in two Administrations that the Secretary, or the Secretary Designate, had created that opportunity. He was pleased to know that.

Jon Fansmith: And surprisingly, after meeting with you and your colleagues, he was eager to do it again. That might be the biggest surprise.

Ted Mitchell: It's surprising thing, that's right.

Sarah Spreitzer: So Ted, we sent a pretty lengthy letter to Secretary Designate Cardona, with a long list of priorities. I'm sure other associations are also reaching out to him. Do you get a sense of what the Secretary's going to be dealing with, right off the bat? In your experience, you come in with an idea of what policy you want to work on, but then obviously reality takes place and there's a lot of others things you need to work on. What's on the to-do list right away, for the incoming Secretary?

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, I think that there are at least three ways to look at that, Sarah. One is what did the campaign put on the table, that the Secretary and the Department will need to take a look at. That doesn't mean that everything that was said in the campaign is going to immediately make its way into policy, but it creates an agenda of things that have to be dealt with. There are places where the campaign's agenda and our agenda overlap entirely. Big ticket item, doubling the Pell Grant. If you think about access, if you think about opportunity, you think about affordability, and doubling the Pell Grant is the quickest, easiest, most effective way for us to create broader opportunity for particularly low income students to access higher education. That's a campaign issue, it's a higher ed issue, and it will become a Department issue. There's a second set of things, that we hope the Secretary will help pay attention to, that come from the field. A lot of those have to do with misplaced regulatory energy in the previous Administration.

Sarah Spreitzer: I know all about those.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, how about that? So we've already begun conversations with the incoming Administration, and frankly, the incoming Administration on day one started working on that, making a firmer platform for DACA students and Dreamers. It is an important priority for us, and the Administration acted on day one to help out there. There was disastrous executive order that essentially sought to prohibit institutions, universities, other Federal contractors, from doing diversity, racial awareness training, think about issues like structural racism. The Trump Administration made a pretty hard run at prohibiting that, and that's now gone. We're feeling good about that.

There are big things left to be done on the Administrative side, Title IX regulations convergence. The campaign has suggested that they need to take another look, we certainly have suggested that they need to take another look, so that'll be important as well. Another place where there has been convergence of the agendas is on the need to support HBCUs and minority serving institutions more substantially, and more directly. Not only through doubling the Pell Grant, but directly through longterm grants to those institutions, to build up their capacity to serve. There's a lot coming from the campaign, there is a good amount of requests coming from the field. And then the third is, as you say Sarah, there's stuff that happens. If I think of the memo that we sent to the Secretary saying, "When you get a chance, and you need to figure out what the compass is directing you to, take a look at this document."

But in the meantime, there are a couple things to deal with. COVID is the first and biggest, it is both important and urgent. So it's no surprise that we've been working hard with the Department and with Congress, with the Administration, on a COVID relief package that will include institutions. We're pleased that the package has somewhere in that neighborhood of $40 billion for higher education. We were pleased that the package includes all kinds of institutions in that, because we know that every institution in our portfolio is working as hard as they can. Not only to make their campuses safe, but to help their communities, vaccinate folks, and create opportunities for the rebuilding of those local economies. There's plenty that will happen, COVID is right there. But, the combination of the campaign, the compelling interests, and then the longterm interests of the field will be woven together over the next four years.

Jon Fansmith: Ted, I want to go back for a second, and talk a little bit more about some of these priorities that you and Sarah were discussing. Obviously, you were framing it in terms of how the Secretary Designate might be looking at this, and plotting out their agenda. But, a lot of the priorities that are outlined, these are the communities priorities, this is what we put forward to the Secretary, you put forward to the Secretary on behalf of not just our members, but our colleague associations and their members as well. I think, obviously, the focus on pandemic relief, you touched a little bit on what Congress is doing with that right now. Even setting that aside, some of these broader priorities. You just had the op-ed in the Washington Post about doubling Pell where you made, of course to my mind, a very persuasive argument for doing so. I just want to dig in a little bit deeper on that. And why, as soon as you get past the immediate crisis of the moment, why that is first and foremost the thing that, across the higher education community, there's broad consensus on doing?

Ted Mitchell: Sure. I want to double down on one of the things that you said, Jon, which is that the asks that we're making really are community asks. It's remarkable, when you think about it, that two year, four year, public, private institutions have coalesced around a set of central principles. I think that that bodes well for our ongoing conversations with the Department. And with Congress, frankly. On doubling Pell, there have been a number of proposals that increase access, free college is one of them. But, doubling Pell has the extreme advantage of aiming new resources at people who need them the most. The means test thing that's inherent in Pell is quite important in making sure that money goes where it's most needed. Second, is that the plumbing is already there for Pell Grants. So Congress, if and when it acts, we can make doubling Pell something that happens in the short run. That's particularly important, because I think we are seeing a decline in enrollments in higher education. As we do surveys, and others do surveys, a part of the problem is that students are starting to feel that college is inaccessible to them. Double Pell will be one of the best ways that we can substantively and symbolically say to people, "No, no. College is for you." Those are the reasons that doubling Pell is right at the top of the list.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. I would just add to that, too, when we talk about declining enrollments, it's not just that enrollments are down. Where they're most down is low income students, first generation students, students of color. It's those students we worry most about getting to in the first place, and who benefit most directly from Pell.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, that's exactly right. We've been making an analogy here, but we spend a lot of time thinking about who should get the vaccine first, and coming up with priority lists. If we were to think about potential college students in the same way, we would think about low income, first generation, minority students, and they should get their vaccine first. The best vaccine we've got is a Pell Grant.

Jon Fansmith: There is one other aspect of affordability. We've talked about some of the things that have been proposals in the public space that have gotten a lot of attention. Obviously, loan forgiveness is another one that's been put out there. In the letter, we talked about loans in somewhat of a different way. I think, considering the attention paid to student loans, maybe letting the audience hear a little bit more about what we, as a community, are thinking the Federal government should be looking at in terms of loans would be helpful.

Ted Mitchell: You bet. I think it's important to recognize, and this came up in Dr. Cardona's confirmation hearing, that the majority of individuals who are having trouble paying their loans are people who have not graduated from college, who have debt but no degree. Their employment has not been benefited by their college experience. So if you begin to pull back on the student loan problem, you'll begin to see that it's also a graduation problem, it's a completion problem. I think that's where higher education shares responsibility for the student loan problems, and we need to do better at not only providing access for students, but we need to get people across the finish line. That's one of the places where we start as a community, is that we know that we have a responsibility as well. The second thing that I would say is that, if you look at student loan defaults, the majority of them are loans that are under $10,000. While the headlines love to talk about the $200,000 loans, the real problem is in the $8000 loan that somebody has, who didn't graduate from college. So, I think we're, as a community, supportive of efforts to help former students who are being most harmed by their student loans. That involves means testing, perhaps connecting it with public assistance, people who are in the SNAP program for example. We'd like to engage in that conversation. But even more important than that, Jon, is I think our sense that the student loan program, over the last 10 to 15 years, has really gotten overly complicated, and that we need to solve the long-term problem while we're solving the short-term problem. Otherwise, people will just start borrowing tomorrow, in the same program with the same incentives, and the same problems, and we'll be stuck again 10 years from now.

So what do I mean by that? One, we need to simplify the offerings in many student loans. Two, we need to expand the use of income based repayment plans. Three, we need to create a better loan servicing environment. Four, we need to actually put in place a workable public service loan forgiveness program. And finally, we need to be serious about making it possible to relive student loans for students who have been defrauded by their institutions. Those are long-term fixes that we need to put in place. Oh, and I've forgotten one, maybe one of the core elements, which is to make it possible for borrowers to relieve their student loans in bankruptcy, the same way that they would relieve an auto loan or other kinds of debt. That combination of things, we think, will help students going forward in ways that are critically important.

Sarah Spreitzer: You know Ted, on those last couple things, borrower defense and public service loan forgiveness which you referenced, there wasn't a lot of forgiveness done in the last four years. So there's a lot of things that this incoming Administration, I think, can look at to really address, and really bring some sort of relief to folks that are seeking relief through those programs.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah. Sarah, it's sometimes too easy to make contrasts. But, I know that when I was in the Department, and when Mushtaq was in the dept, we looked at the number of borrower defense claims, and where they were in the process, and how close we were to making a determination. Every week, we knew the number down to the single digit, of how many students had applied, where they were in the process, and how close we were. I don't think that the Trump team every looked at those numbers, and I think that it's a tragedy. It is also, I think, one of those things that you were talking about earlier. What are the things that are on the ground, that are going to prevent people from maybe looking beyond it until they deal with it? There are 100,000 unadjudicated borrower defense claims that need to be cleaned up.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah. I think it feels, to me, like the things that you outlined there in relations to loans, Ted, are not all going to make headlines, they aren't all forgiving $50,000 worth of loans. But it is the plumbing that we probably need to pay good attention to right away, in those first five, six months, and it'll set the Administration up for success in the next three and a half years. It's funny. It's the sort of thing where I image that the person that's going to be Undersecretary may not come in with a whole lot of experience dealing with loans, or the banking system, but they'll certainly end up spending quite a bit of time on those issues, I would imagine.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, I think that's right. I think back to my own confirmation, and I must say that I was surprised that there was so many questions about student loans. I thought that this was a job about big policy ideas, and thinking about how to bring innovation to the higher education sphere. And maybe two weeks in, I was up to my shoulders, as we both were, up to my shoulders in Federal student aid and the crisis of for-profit colleges. Absolutely. Federal student aid is, I think, the fifth largest bank in America. And, coming to terms with how that bank operates is a pretty big agenda, all by itself.

Jon Fansmith: Speaking of that, and you've touched upon when you and Mushtaq were both at the department, checking the status of borrower defense claims on a weekly basis. Obviously, you were also in a somewhat different environment, coming at the end of an Administration that had been in power for eight years. Or, would be in power for eight years, versus this Biden team that's coming in, they have four years of an Administration from the other party that's been in place, has a very different view of the role of government and education. Before we let you go, I just want to give you the opportunity to talk a little bit about what you've seen from your time at the department, and what you're seeing now. Where there's similarities between the approaches of the two Administrations, and where there might be differences in the approaches, and what those mean for higher ed.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, it's a great question. I think that the Trump Administration coming in between the Obama Administration and the Biden Administration changes the fractals a little bit, because you're looking at all of these issues not only from the point of view of an Obama to Biden, but through the discordance of the Trump years. I think that there's going to be a lot of reset, of lot of getting back to the starting line on some of these things, that'll take a lot of time. I do think that one of the things we haven't talked about that's going to be very important for the field is that, when you think back to the Obama Administration, and think back to the other big Obama project which was the college ratings system that turned into the College Scorecard. The theme about that is one that we're going to see again in the Biden Administration, which is how can higher education hold itself accountable for outcomes, in ways that are credible to the public, credible to Congress, and most importantly, credible to the families who are spending money and time in higher education. I think that's a theme that we need to be ready for, it's one that we embrace as a community, and one I look forward to working on with the Secretary and the team.

Jon Fansmith: That's great. I don't know, Mushtaq, Sarah, any last thoughts or questions for Ted?

Sarah Spreitzer: No. I don't think it'll be the last time that we ask Ted questions from his experience with the Department. So thank you, thank you Ted for coming on and talking to us.

Ted Mitchell: Thank you, Sarah.

Mushtaq Gunja: Thanks, Ted.

Ted Mitchell: Thanks Mushtaq, thanks Jon.

Jon Fansmith: Thanks so much for coming on. Always a pleasure, and I'll check my inbox for those sandals.

Ted Mitchell: Look for those sandals, yeah.

Jon Fansmith: All right. Thanks, Ted.

Ted Mitchell: Later.

Jon Fansmith: To listen to earlier episodes and to subscribe to dotEDU, you can find us on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Google Podcast, and wherever you get your podcasts. For show notes and links to resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at acenet.edu/podcast. You can also use our email, podcast@acenet.edu, for suggestions for upcoming shows, or guests you'd like to see, or just thoughts on how we're doing. Before we go, I'd like to thank Carly O'Connell, Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton, and Malcolm Moore, who are the exceptional producers of dotEDU, and make us sound as good as we do every episode. Finally, I'd like to thank you for listening.

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​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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