Trump’s billionaire education secretary is accused of denying student-loan forgiveness to thousands. Now she’ll testify over it.

Betsy DeVos
Betsy DeVos. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
  • A judge ruled Betsy DeVos must testify in a case brought on by 160,000 defrauded students.
  • The students claim DeVos mishandled a program to forgive loans for students defrauded by for-profit schools.
  • Under Obama, the program had a 99.2% approval rate, but under DeVos, 99.4% of applicants were denied.
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As Education Secretary under President Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos was tasked with overseeing the loan forgiveness program for students defrauded by for-profit schools. But thousands of those students claim they didn’t get the relief they deserved and have sued DeVos for her mishandling of the program.

A judge just ruled that DeVos has to testify in court about it.

The Biden administration didn’t want this to happen. In February, it joined DeVos in fighting a subpoena to testify in the lawsuit filed by about 160,000 defrauded students, arguing it was an “extraordinary request.” But on Wednesday, Judge William Alsup wrote in a 12-page ruling that her testimony was warranted given the “sparse” documentation of DeVos’ reasoning for rejecting borrowers’ claims.

“Even assuming Secretary DeVos retains some measure of executive prerogative, she must answer an appropriately issued subpoena,” Alsup wrote in the ruling. “Judicial process runs even to unwilling executives.”

Over the past decade, several for-profit schools have shut down over investigations claiming the schools engaged in fraudulent behavior related to federal loans. Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes were two of the biggest schools accused of violating federal law by persuading their students to take out loans they could not pay back. They both shut down, as did other for-profit companies, such as Education Corporation of America.

DeVos, an heir to the AmWay fortune and member of one of America’s richest families, per Forbes, oversaw the “borrower defense to repayment” program to forgive debt for eligible defrauded borrowers, but the program massively failed. Compared to a 99.2% approval rate for claims filed under President Barack Obama, DeVos had a 99.4% denial rate for borrowers, and ran up a huge backlog of claims from eligible defrauded borrowers seeking student debt forgiveness.

Under DeVos, the program began to compare the median earnings of graduates with debt-relief claims to the median earnings of graduates in comparable programs, and the bigger the difference, the more relief the applicant would receive.

The high denial rate alarmed lawmakers, advocates, and borrowers who wanted student debt relief but weren’t getting any, and as Alsup said in his ruling, DeVos did not provide a sufficient explanation as to why so few claims were processed.

In March, Biden’s Education Secretary Miguel Cardona canceled $1 billion in student debt for about 72,000 defrauded borrowers and said in a statement that DeVos’ methodology for giving defrauded students debt relief had been ineffective and needed to be reversed.

“Borrowers deserve a simplified and fair path to relief when they have been harmed by their institution’s misconduct,” Cardona said in a statement. “A close review of these claims and the associated evidence showed these borrowers have been harmed and we will grant them a fresh start from their debt.”

Critics of DeVos’ appointment had argued that her financial ties were a conflict of interest, as she never sold her multimillion-dollar stake in Neurocore, a “brain training” program for children. She is also a longtime advocate of “school choice,” or vouchers that enable parents to send their children to private schools instead of public ones.

DeVos has separately asked the Georgia-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to block the subpoena. Alsup has scheduled a hearing for June 3.