By Charlene Crowell
Civil rights leaders and Capitol Hill lawmakers are standing up and speaking out against a recent Department of Education (DOE) decision to sever its working relationship with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). In separate and independent actions Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and staff are being challenged and corrected as to its understanding of a sole office having complete authority and enforcement regarding the nation’s student loans.
As readers may recall, an earlier column reported on an August 31 advisory by the Department of Education to formally end two Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) that guided Education’s working relationship with CFPB. The first MOU detailed how DOE would share information with CFPB. The second detailed how the two agencies would cooperate on supervisory oversight, the process that has led to multiple million dollar settlements for fraud and other legal violations. For CFPB, the correspondence was an unexpected 30-day cancellation notice.
It was also one that affects more than 40 million consumers who together owe $1.4 trillion in a combination of federal and private student loan debt. Among Black students who used student loans to finance a bachelor’s degree, the burden of debt is disproportionate. Four years following graduation, they owe almost double the amount of their white classmates, according to research by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).
Since then, reactions have ranged from questioning the advisability as to why DOE would cut its ties to CFPB, to outright challenges to the agency’s knowledge and interpretation of applicable federal laws.
For example, 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined with other Capitol Hill lawmakers in a bicameral effort that represented 18 states to challenge in a September 15 letter to Secretary DeVos that advised the department’s “assertions are false.” Led by Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Patty Murray of Washington, the correspondence was a direct challenge.
“While the Department does have the authority to administer the federal student loan programs,” wrote the lawmakers, “that authority is not exclusive and has been intentionally constrained by law due to the Department’s historical negligence in carrying out many of its oversight responsibilities over federal student loan servicers.”
“Congress also established a Student Loan Ombudsman at the
CFPB whose responsibilities include working with the Department to ‘resolve complaints related to [borrowers] private education or federal student loans’ and is specifically instructed to enter into a MOU with the Department to do so,” the letter continued.
The lawmakers also advised in their letter that the authority to monitor and enforce laws affecting student loan servicers beyond those held by CFPB additionally includes duties for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at the federal level and in the states by attorneys general and other state agencies.
“We are pleased to see Senators Brown and Murray are joined by more lawmakers in leading the way to assert CFPB’s authority and that of other federal agencies that together share oversight and regulation of student loans and student loan servicers,” commented Whitney Barkley-Denney, a CRL policy counsel and student loan specialist. “The claims made by the Department of Education signal a disturbing intent to withhold key information that should be shared.”
“These lawmakers are standing up for borrowers and taxpayers against a Department of Education that seems more interested in protecting the interests of big money corporations than struggling families. On behalf of the more than 40 million consumers burdened with student debt and our allies in this struggle, we are also most grateful,” Barkley-Denney concluded.
If lawmaker chidings weren’t enough, days later on September 20, another communique continued what the lawmakers began. Led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR), a coalition of diverse national organizations pledged to promote and protect civil and human rights of all people, sent its collective concerns to Secretary DeVos, citing federal laws like Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“All of these laws require regulations and guidance, and oversight and enforcement, in order to provide their intended benefits to students,” stated the coalition.
More than 40 national organizations joined in noting DOE’s apparent failure to embrace its duties in civil rights when it comes to higher education. Among the signatories were a broad range of concerns from the NAACP, National Urban League, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, to the National Council of Jewish Women, UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of LaRaza), American Association of University Women, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
“Students deserve, and the law requires, a Department of Education that is working to protect all students from discrimination and to provide for equal educational opportunity,” the coalition concluded.
Charlene Crowell is the communications deputy director with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at [email protected].