In a veiled swing at President-elect Joe Biden's education plans, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday blasted the push for free college as a “socialist takeover of higher education” that could damage the nation's economy.
Speaking at an online conference hosted by the Education Department's Federal Student Aid office, DeVos did not mention Biden by name. But she railed against “politicians” who have issued “shrill calls” to cancel federal student debt or make college free.
“Make no mistake: It is a socialist takeover of higher education,” DeVos said. “Now, depending on your personal politics, some of you might not find that notion as scary as I do. But mark my words: None of you would like the way it will work.”
DeVos has long opposed free college proposals and has been accused of undermining federal programs that allow some borrowers to get their student loans forgiven. A federal judge held DeVos in contempt of court in 2019 after finding that she violated a court order to halt the collection of loan payments from borrowers applying for forgiveness.
Biden, by contrast, says he wants to make public colleges and universities free for families that earn less than $125,000 a year. His education plan would expand existing loan forgiveness programs, and he has backed proposals to cancel $10,000 in federal student debt for all borrowers as part of a coronavirus relief effort.
DeVos’ speech focused on her agency’s recent work and on what she called the “insidious notion of government gift giving.” It did not address lingering questions around pandemic relief for student borrowers.
The Trump administration has paused payments through the end of December, but DeVos has not said if the moratorium will be extended again.
DeVos argued that free college would place an unfair burden on taxpayers, requiring Americans who do not pursue college to “pay the bills” for those who do. College counselors, she added, would simply become “rationers” who allocate “state-approved higher education options.”
“If the politicians proposing free college today get their way, just watch our colleges and universities begin to resemble a failing K-12 school, with the customer service of the DMV to boot,” she said.
Free college has been proposed in a variety of forms as a way to make higher education affordable for all Americans. Dozens of versions have been implemented in cities and states across the U.S., and calls for a federal program gained momentum during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
Biden's plan was adopted from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a prominent advocate for free college. The proposal, which would require action by Congress, calls on the federal government to partner with states to split the cost.
When Sanders asked DeVos about free college during her 2017 Senate confirmation, DeVos argued that “nothing is truly free," an idea that she repeated in her speech Tuesday.
“Somebody, somewhere pays the bill,” she said. “And the bill is coming due. What we do next in education policy — and in public policy writ large — will either break our already fragile economy, or it will unleash an age of achievement and prosperity the likes of which we’ve never seen.”