Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Congressional Democrats should pressure DeVos to clean up the student-loan collection business

Democrats are critical of Betsy DeVos, President Trump's new Secretary of Education, but one concern is particularly valid, which is this: DeVos has business ties with a student-loan debt collector.

Those ties, which were explained in a Washington Post article are complicated. Here is what the Post said:
Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos and her husband have extensive financial holdings through their private investment and management firm, RDV Corporation. . . .

RDV is affiliated with LMF Portfolio, a limited liability corporation listed in regulatory filings as one of several firms involved in a $147 million loan to Performant Financial Corp., a debt collection agency in business with the Education Department.

Twenty-three percent of Performant's revenue is directly tied to its dealings with the Education Department, which had 14 contracts worth more than $20 million with the company in fiscal 2016.
According to the Post, Performant lost a recent contract bid with the Department of Education and is protesting DOE's decision with the Government Accountability Office.

DeVos's complicated ties with a student-loan debt college company is a legitimate worry to Democrats because as Secretary of Education, "DeVos would be in a position to influence the award of debt collection, servicing and recovery contracts, in addition to the oversight and monitoring of the contracts." In addition, the Post article points out, DeVos will also "have the authority to revise payments and fees to contractors for rehabilitating past-due debt--all of which has Senate Democrats concerned."

Senator Elizabeth Warren criticized DeVos because DeVos has no experience in higher education. "As Education Secretary," Warren charged, "Betsy DeVos would be in charge of running a $1 trillion student loan bank. She has no experience doing that." In fact, Warren correctly observed, "Betsy DeVos has no experience with student loans, Pell Grants, or public education at all."

Like Senator Warren, most Senate Democrats senators opposed DeVos to be Secretary of Education primarily on the ground that she has no experience in higher education, which is true. But I think a bigger concern is the fear that DeVos won't regulate the for-profit college industry aggressively and that she won't monitor the government's debt collectors, including the student loan guaranty agencies, which have a ruthless record of collection activities against distressed student loan debtors.

I confess I did not take DeVos's ties with a debt collection agency into consideration during the nomination process. I thought, perhaps naively, that DeVos's lack of experience in higher education might be a plus, since she could look at the student loan program with fresh eyes.

And perhaps she will. But the Democrats can smoke her out by moving aggressively for transparency and an accounting in the student-loan collection business and calling for a reduction in the collection fees and penalties the debt collectors are slapping on defaulted student loans.

Senator Warren could lead the charge by holding hearings on the activities of the student loan guaranty agencies: Educational Credit Management Corporation and the others. The Century Foundation reported that four of these agencies, which are nonprofit organizations, each hold $1 billion in assets.

If Secretary DeVos does not move aggressively to rein in the for-profits and clean up the debt collection business, then the Democrats will have a legitimate charge against her. The best way to see how DeVos will handle her new responsibilities is to hold hearings and introduce legislation to clean up the student loan industry.

If DeVos opposes legitimate calls for reforming the federal student loan program, then the Democrats are right about her.

References

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Dems raise concern about links between DeVos and debt collection agency. Washington Post, January 17, 2017. 

Eugene Scott. Warren grills DeVos: 'I don't see how she can be the Secretary of Education.' CNN, January 18, 2017.

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://tcf.org/content/report/student-loan-guaranty-agencies-lost-way/

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