Prepared Remarks from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to Federal Student Aid's Training Conference for Financial Aid Professionals

Prepared Remarks from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to Federal Student Aid's Training Conference for Financial Aid Professionals

November 28, 2017

Thank you, Wayne, for that kind introduction. And thank you for the leadership and vision you are bringing to the office of Federal Student Aid.

It’s a delight to be with folks who work directly with and for students. Counseling students as they pursue their dreams is really at the core of your work. And what an incredible opportunity you have to guide them in those pursuits.

Now, more than ever before, it’s important to focus on individual students and their unique needs. It’s no secret that the world is changing rapidly, and the requirements and demands for tomorrow’s workforce are dynamic and evolving.;

A study cited in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 “The Future of Jobs” report estimates 65 percent of kids in kindergarten today can look forward to working in or creating jobs that don’t yet exist.

You heard that right: most students are likely to take on a professional life not yet conceived. So our approach to education must be equally imaginative and nimble.

We best not cling to relics of the past out of habit – or worse, out of fear of change.

We must also be honest. Let me posit this reality: a four-year degree is not the only valid avenue for success in adulthood. 

Too many for too long have suggested – subtly, or not so subtly – that the 4-year degree, the so-called “traditional” college experience is the right, and only, answer to the question of what constitutes the correct path to a successful future. That may be the right answer for some, but that singular focus hasn’t served anyone well.

Let’s face it: The vast majority of American students today are not traditional students. And most of today’s college students or recent graduates don’t enter work in their field of study, let alone plan to stay in the same field for the rest of their lives.

Today’s reality is that most Americans will have a dozen or more jobs over the course of their lifetimes, often in roles very different from one another and often in unrelated sectors.

And many more would prefer to create their own future by becoming entrepreneurs, inventors, creators and makers. Frankly, we need many more who do just that. 

As a student recently remarked: “College is designed to teach you to work for someone else. I want to prepare to work for myself.”

Our approach to education must reflect the realities of today’s economy, with an eye toward tomorrow’s opportunities. It must help students gain the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate a multitude of possibilities. Broadly useful skills like critical thinking. Collaboration. Communication. Creativity.

These are essential -- but often overlooked skills -- for students to acquire and hone.

It’s also important to acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all path for any student in America.

There are many avenues to gain what individual students need: industry-recognized certificates, credentials and licensures, badges, micro-degrees, apprenticeships, two-year degrees, four-year degrees and advanced degrees.

All of these are valid pursuits, and each should be embraced as such. If it’s the right fit for the student, then it’s the right education. Let’s not be distracted by purveyors of conventional wisdom who denigrate an alternative pathway. Students are allowed – and should be encouraged -- to be unconventional. No stigma should follow a student’s journey to success.

At the same time, we must also put to bed the notion that education stops at age 22. Universities call graduation ceremonies “commencements” for a reason: a diploma is not a finish line. Education is -- and should be -- a lifelong pursuit.

And I believe the federal government shouldn’t pretend it can manage that pursuit. For too long, Washington’s regulators have made your jobs more difficult and students’ lives more confusing.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Identifying the problem starts with accepting this reality: Government doesn’t have all the answers. Business leaders, community and faith leaders, parents and students do. So let’s empower them instead.

As you are well aware, reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is being discussed in Washington, and I fear that too many will be satisfied with putting another coat of paint on a peeling wall.

The Higher Education Act, which is more than 50 years old, still governs and defines much of what you can and cannot do to serve students.

That’s why when it comes to the federal government’s role in supporting education beyond high school, we really ought to start from a blank page. That notion has raised some eyebrows, but I don’t understand why it’s such a “radical” idea.

I know it is impolite to talk about age, but the HEA is a child of the 60s. Our country has changed more than a little since then! Our approach to higher education should as well.

We must rethink higher education because our students are demanding that we do so, and importantly, our times also demand it. We must be bold. We must embrace a vision for the future, not settle for a product of the past.

Students should be able to pursue their education where, when and how it works for them and their schedules. Financial aid should not be withheld simply because they pursue a non-traditional path. Politicians and bureaucrats should not dictate to students when and how they can learn.

How on earth can someone in Washington know better than a student which class schedule will work best for them or how they can best juggle studies and work?

That’s why we restored year-round Pell funding soon after I arrived in Washington. It was a common sense step to help students save money and take more control of their own education journey. In many cases, it facilitates finishing course work faster, and, with less debt.

Like too many issues in DC, everyone knew it was the right thing to do but it just didn’t get done. We helped changed that.

I’m also pleased to serve on the White House Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. Together with leaders from the private sector, we are rethinking what effective apprenticeships look like today. That includes removing barriers for students who currently must choose to either further their education or hold a job to pay the bills. There is no reason it cannot be a “both/and” scenario, versus an “either/or.”

On another front, we are taking a careful look at some of the previous administration’s well-intentioned, but poorly designed, regulations including the Borrower’s Defense to Repayment and Gainful Employment rules. Through the negotiated rulemaking process, which is now underway, we’re focused on protecting individual borrowers from fraud while ensuring accountability across institutions of higher education with clear, fair and balanced rules. Rules that protect both students and taxpayers.

This effort is part of a broader regulatory review process. We’ve already held two public hearings, and members of my team are here to learn directly from you during three listening sessions throughout the conference. I urge you to attend and give us your perspectives and feedback.

There is much more to be done and those are only a few examples of how we’re making progress in our effort to re-think how to better serve students, taxpayers and institutions.

One of the most important areas – one that brings all of us together today -- is student aid.

You are all well aware that Federal Student Aid -- FSA -- has one of the largest consumer loan portfolios in the country. As such, I fundamentally believe the services we deliver for our students should be on par with world-class financial firms, and that FSA should be the most trusted lender in the industry.

To better serve our customers – students – it’s imperative that we modernize our infrastructure and revamp the way we connect with them.

You know firsthand that the current process too often puts paperwork ahead of people. That doesn’t work for anyone. Not parents. Not students. And not you.

As financial aid officers, you engage with students in times of joy and sorrow as they navigate formative years. Some may see you merely as technocrats, but I guarantee that is not how the students you counsel feel, particularly those who face special challenges because of homelessness or abuse in their family. Or when poverty has unexpectedly dislocated a family. Or when a first-generation student is simultaneously trying to go attend classes while providing for their family back home.

Your role is critical. You give students hope, you give them guidance and occasionally you give them some “tough love.” The impact you have on your students is significant, and while you may feel your efforts often go unnoticed and under-appreciated, let me take this opportunity to thank you and applaud you.

But your efforts to help students become harder when Washington unnecessarily burdens you with mountains of paperwork and layers of unnavigable bureaucracy. Please know we are working to reduce the regulatory burden on all of you, so you can focus on your true calling: advising and guiding students.

Regrettably, the previous administration sold students – and all of you – on greater governmental involvement in the student loan marketplace. “Let us help you,” they said. Somehow a heavier hand from Washington would make the entire process simpler and easier to navigate.

But you know the opposite happened. Everything became more complicated and burdensome for everyone, the process more cumbersome and confusing.

For starters, there is no continuity of experience for borrowers.

A student may begin the aid process through at least 3 different portals. Then, if the student is eligible and a loan is secured, that same student will now be passed off to begin working with his or her school’s financial aid office.

Further down the road, whether or not a student earns a degree, he or she will select from over 10 different repayment plans with 30 variations – many of them redundant – from up to nine different servicers, all with unique websites and forms.

A typical student, carrying an average of five loans, makes payments to several servicers, across several websites. It is no surprise that more than one student has proclaimed it “confusing and overwhelming.”

If a student decides to consolidate loans, he or she will now have to work with yet another servicer who has – guess what? -- more new forms to be completed. If he or she has a problem making payments for whatever reason, the student will now have to work with yet another agency which assigns the balance to – you know this – another servicer.

The cost to the taxpayer? Two billion dollars every year. This government maze doesn’t work for students. And it doesn’t work for taxpayers.

Let’s consider Lauren’s experience. Lauren earned her bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University and a master’s degree from George Washington University. Altogether her education cost her nearly a quarter-million dollars in federal student loan debt. Her family does not participate in financial support and they were not a part of her financial aid process.

Well-established in her career, Lauren felt overwhelmed trying to navigate the disjointed maze of programs and plans. She found the aid process to be essentially another job. Worried she’d pick the wrong repayment plan, she defaulted to the standard one. It cost her hundreds of dollars more a month than she can afford.

This meant Lauren had little left for daily expenses, so she ran up even more credit card debt. For her, it has become a vicious cycle and a grand distraction at a time she should be focused on furthering her career.

We must simplify the process for students like Lauren. When barriers to entry are high, fewer students – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – even attempt the journey, let alone succeed.

This need not be the case. And we’re working with our friends in Congress to accomplish the changes students deserve.

Simplification is possible -- just look at what innovators are doing in the mortgage industry. With a few swipes and taps on a phone, the complex process behind securing a loan to own a home has suddenly become simpler for everyone.

Why can’t it be that way for students?  The answer is, it can!

Too often, you and the students you serve have carried the weight of a burdensome process handed down by the Department and FSA. So we are rethinking the office of Federal Student Aid, something I argue is long overdue.

The current online infrastructure was built when we were still using phone lines to surf the web. When was the last time you heard this?

It’s been a while, I’m sure, and I doubt any of us really yearn to go back to that time. But the reality is that’s where our financial aid infrastructure is stuck.

Think of the FAFSA: there is no reason completing it can’t be simpler and more consumer-friendly. Unfortunately, it’s anything but.

How do you think this looks to an 18 year old? And does this even remotely look like it belongs in the 21st century?

As one student told us “the FAFSA is really complicated for an 18-year-old who has never done taxes or anything like that before.”

Just “figuring out the right number to call,” the student said, “is a nightmare.”

Another student told us that trying to use a servicer’s mobile site was “a tedious process, and I just gave up.”

These experiences are far from world-class and I think they are far from acceptable. You can order food, get a ride home, check your bank account, send money to a friend, or, as I’m told, even find your soulmate on your phone! The FAFSA should – at minimum -- keep pace with these commonplace activities!

I’ve challenged Wayne and his team at FSA to rethink how their office works. That means bringing federal financial services into today’s reality – and looking ahead to the next generation. FSA will look and function like a world class, customer-centric financial institution, not a government maze.

The goal is a customer experience that will rival Amazon or Apple’s Genius Bar. One that better serves students and taxpayers. And one that frees you up to actually counsel students.

Students should be able to complete their FAFSA easily on their phones and in one sitting. They should receive expert, tailored advice about their options. It’s called “student aid,” after all. And throughout the life of their loans, students should be able to communicate directly – by texting or chatting or whatever the most current method is – with professionals whose primary duty is to them.

So we’re excited to announce that we are moving FAFSA to a mobile app. And if Wayne can “curb his enthusiasm,” he will tell you a lot more about it tomorrow.

We will make the financial aid process modern, streamlined, more accessible and simply easier for students – and you.

Importantly, this initiative also includes enhancing cyber security to protect personal data. This is a responsibility the Department has neglected for too long. We are making marked improvements because there are serious and ever-iterating threats.

Overall, the next generation system will be the most significant change to the student aid process… ever.

Now, I acknowledge that change can be scary. But you know better than most that we owe it to students to do better.

I know from meeting students all over the country that there is no “ordinary” student. You know this, too. There is no “ordinary” job, and no “ordinary” life. We know students can do extraordinary things. There’s no limit to what they can achieve. Let’s demonstrate our belief in their potential by making their financial aid process a world-class experience.

Every facet of our approach must be student-centric, easier, more modernized, more customized, more flexible and more affordable.

We are at an inflection point for higher education, and students must be our focus. We must anticipate the perils and the possibilities students face in our fast-moving world. They deserve clear paths to success. That means we get government out of the way so students can focus on the things that matter to them: their careers, their families, our country.

And so, our team at the Department and FSA looks at everything we do and judges it by one simple measure: How does this help students?

Because that’s what we’re all here for isn’t it? Students, not systems. People, not paperwork. We want you to be able to work for students, unencumbered by the unnecessary and the outdated.

Our shared purpose is to work for students and give them access to all the joys and opportunities higher education can bring. And our work is critical, because today’s students represent 100 percent of our future. They deserve 100 percent of our effort.

Thank you for all that you do for our nation’s students, and enjoy the rest of the conference.