“She made it extremely difficult for these students to get any relief. These schools take the money and run, and the students end up holding the bag with massive debts.”
Student loan borrowers won a small victory on Wednesday when Senate Democrats and a handful of their Republican counterparts voted to reverse a Department of Education rule they say reduces protections for students who were deceived by for-profit institutions.
The proposed rule, developed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, would place restrictions on the Obama-era “borrower defense to repayment” program, which allows former students who were misled by their schools to seek forgiveness of their federal student loans. The initial rule was intended to protect thousands who took out federal loans to attend for-profit colleges that made fraudulent claims about their graduates’ career and earning prospects.
DeVos’ change would implement a sliding scale limiting full debt relief only to students who earn significantly less than those from similar programs at other schools. Those with smaller earnings disparities would only have 25% to 75% of their federal loans forgiven.
Wednesday’s 53-42 vote means the bill, which already passed the House, will now go to President Trump, who has yet to comment publicly on whether he plans to support or veto the bill.
Opponents of DeVos’ rule said her changes would implement requirements that exceedingly few borrowers would be able to meet, effectively killing the debt forgiveness program.
“She made it extremely difficult for these students to get any relief,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who spearheaded the bill, said before the vote. “These schools take the money and run, and the students end up holding the bag with massive debts.”
DeVos previously argued the Obama-era rules were too generous to students and touted the fact that her cuts would have saved the government nearly $13 billion—at the expense of borrowers.
As of January 2020, the Education Department has received over 309,000 applications for the “borrower defense to repayment” program, with nearly 170,000 of those still pending. Only 51,567 applications have been approved, with only about 4,000 of those coming in the past two years, as DeVos has tried to rewrite the rule.
In a statement to the New York Times, the Education Department on Wednesday said its rule protected students at community colleges and historically Black universities, as well as taxpayers “from undue harm from the poorly written Obama-era regulation.”
The department also blasted the Senate vote, invoking some of President Trump’s favorite lines of attack.
“It’s disappointing to see so many in Congress fooled by misinformation from the left and the fake news narrative about our efforts to protect students from fraud,” Angela L. Morabito, a spokeswoman told the New York Times.
Student borrower advocates, on the other hand, praised the vote.
“We applaud the Senate for its bipartisan vote to overturn the borrower defense rule that attacks the rights of borrowers,” Toby Merrill, director of The Project on Predatory Student Lending, said in a statement. “The new rule would make it nearly impossible for cheated borrowers to get their loans discharged … We call on the President to put the voices of students above the interests of for-profit colleges by signing this bipartisan legislation.”
Ordinarily, Democrats would have needed 60 votes to pass the bill, but because they introduced Tuesday’s vote under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to try to block executive regulations, they only needed a simple majority.
Only 10 Republican senators joined 43 Democrats in siding with borrowers.