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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos slammed calls to "cancel" student debt or make college free, making a case this week against what she called a "socialist takeover" of education — and prompting a fiery rebuke from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
DeVos, who almost certainly will be replaced once President-elect Biden is inaugurated, has been a lightning rod for controversy since her tenure began in 2017; she's pushed deregulation and aimed to increase due process on college campuses, to applause from conservatives and harsh criticism from Democrats.
But with an incoming administration likely to take the Department of Education in a sharply different direction, one of President Trump's longest-serving Cabinet secretaries made one last case against "total government control" of higher education Tuesday at the 2020 Federal Student Aid Training Conference.
"Policies should never entice students into greater debt. Nor should they put taxpayer dollars at greater risk. There are too many politicians today who support policy that does both," DeVos said. "Still more advance the truly insidious notion of government gift giving. We’ve heard shrill calls to 'cancel,' to 'forgive,' to 'make it all free.' Any innocuous label out there can’t obfuscate what it really is: wrong."
She continued: "The campaign for 'free college' is a matter of total government control. Make no mistake: it is a socialist takeover of higher education. 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."
She added that college counselors could turn into essentially "rationers" of "state-approved higher-education options." Students, DeVos warned, might not be eligible to attend certain schools or degree programs. DeVos also said that there may be cases in which a "quota for 'free college' students is full" and counselors are forced to tell students "that they now have to pay full price."
"Ultimately, nothing is 'free.' 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."
Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., reacted on Twitter to DeVos' remarks, mocking the education secretary's comments.
"Tuition-free public college is a dangerous socialist takeover of higher ed, as opposed to the far superior capitalist takeover of higher ed, which reliably buries millions of Americans in trillions of dollars in debt & graduates them into low paying jobs without good healthcare," the "Squad" congresswoman wrote.
Biden's campaign website advocates several reforms related to higher-education. These include eliminating tuition for all students attending public colleges and universities whose families have a household income of less than $125,000, improved student loan forgiveness for public servants, significantly cutting student loan payments to 5% of discretionary income over $25,000, and zero for those making less than $25,000.
During the Democrats' presidential primary, Biden also supported forgiving "at least $10,000 of student loan debt per person." As recently as October, Biden backed "making community college free for all."
The debate over student loan debt and the price of college education has raged for years as many college graduates are putting off major life decisions like moving out of their parents' house, buying a home or getting married due to their loans. Supporters of full student debt elimination like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., say it's "insane" that the country tells "young people to get the best education they can, and then saddle them for decades with crushing loan debt."
But, conservatives often argue that college education has been over-emphasized in the U.S., and that is the root of the problem with college debt. DeVos alluded to that Tuesday, touting her department's expansion of "apprenticeship opportunities."
Those on the right also note that full student debt forgiveness would be a fundamentally regressive policy, benefiting on average people who have higher incomes rather than those with lower incomes.
Fox News' Ashley Cozzolino contributed to this report.
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