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10 Questions for the Next Secretary of Education

President Joe Biden’s education secretary will inherit a higher education system with many challenges. Colleges and universities are under increased financial pressure. Millions of student loan borrowers, having benefited from a reprieve in payments amidst this period of economic uncertainty, will struggle to meet their obligations when repayments resume. Other challenges predate the pandemic, including poor outcomes left unchecked by a weak accountability system and data limitations that obscure institutional spending patterns.

On campuses, faculty and administrators are working to provide students with an inclusive and welcoming environment while also introducing them to a broad range of viewpoints. Yet, their efforts are strained by a national trend of intensifying polarization.

As the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions considers the nomination of Miguel Cardona for education secretary, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Higher Education and Campus Free Expression projects offer the following questions for the nominee.

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Higher Education

  1. Payment and interest accrual on federal direct student loans are currently suspended through the end of September. When repayments resume, many borrowers will be struggling financially, and servicers will likely see an influx of requests from borrowers to enroll in income-driven repayment, a process that involves significant red tape. How will the Department work to ensure a smooth transition to repayment for borrowers and servicers?

  2. The economic fallout from COVID-19 has weakened the already fragile balance sheets of colleges across the country. Not only is state funding for higher education projected to decline, but institutions are grappling with revenue shortfalls from depressed enrollment and increased costs associated with virus prevention. What role should the federal government play in the immediate term to ensure colleges have adequate resources, and to what extent should longer-term reforms be implemented to mitigate state disinvestment in higher education?

  3. Students from lower-income school districts complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at a rate 7 percentage points lower than students from higher-income districts, and low-income students are disproportionately selected for FAFSA verification. In December, Congress passed welcome reforms to the FAFSA that included shortening the length of the form. To what extent are further policy changes necessary to make it easier for students to access federal student aid?

  4. The higher education system suffers from lax federal oversight, allocating billions of dollars each year to schools with minimal strings attached. As a result, too many institutions provide students with a poor return on their investment. Just 44% of first-time, full-time students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years; these outcomes are even worse for students of color. How do you plan on addressing poor outcomes in higher education, and to what extent should colleges be additionally responsible for poor outcomes among their students? Would you support a system the rewards or penalizes schools based on the outcomes they provide to their students?

  5. The federal government allocates over $120 billion each year to colleges in the form of federal student aid, but it is currently impossible to gauge how much these schools are spending on marketing, recruitment and lobbying. What steps will the Department of Education take under your leadership to improve transparency in this regard?

Campus Free Expression

  1. A culture of free exchange and open inquiry is essential to teaching, learning, and scholarship at our higher education institutions, and ample evidence shows students believe that some opinions cannot be expressed openly. Government has limited capacity to ensure genuinely open and respectful campus exchange between diverse viewpoints. What is the federal government’s role, if any, in supporting a free expression culture on our nation’s campuses?

  2. In our polarized times, controversial findings can land a faculty member in hot water. A case in point: Last year, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine was removed from his position as a program director for publishing a white paper critical of affirmative action programs in cardiology. The Department of Education responded through a letter addressed to the university chancellor, expressing concerns about whether the university upheld its commitments to academic freedom and requesting records and transcribed interviews for an investigation of the matter. Does the Department of Education have a role in supporting the freedom of researchers to present their independent findings?

  3. According to a Knight Foundation 2020 survey, 39% of students think it is sometimes or always acceptable to shout down speakers to prevent them from speaking, while 13% believe it is sometimes or always acceptable to use violence to do so. Indeed, Xavier Becerra, nominee to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services, was shouted down in 2017 when he visited a private university campus for a public Q&A session as California Attorney General. What is your position on student disruption and silencing of speakers they oppose?

  4. The Educating for Democracy Act of 2020 and the USA Civics Act of 2019, the latter of which was introduced in the last Congress and is expected to be reintroduced, are bipartisan proposals to create grants administered by the Department of Education to universities and nonprofits for civics education. These programs address a civics education gap that leaves matriculating college students with an insufficient understanding of our governing institutions. By what criteria would the Department of Education select higher education institutions and programs to receive these civics education grants?

  5. Understanding our nation’s history—both our achievements and our failings—is essential preparation for forming engaged, informed citizens. Yet, there are worrying signs that we are falling short in history education. The Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress 2018 Report Card reported lower scores across all history themes for eighth-grade students than in the previous (2014) NAEP Report Card. Declines occurred among both boys and girls, and among every race and ethnicity. What can the Department of Education do to provide students with greater knowledge of American history?