House Democrats released new documents Tuesday detailing how high-ranking Education Department officials froze the development of a website that its Federal Student Aid office designed to help students who have been defrauded by their colleges apply for loan forgiveness, arguing the tool made the process too easy.
“We are deeply troubled that the Department of Education halted a web tool to help simplify and streamline the process for defrauded students applying for relief,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, the chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, said in a joint statement they released alongside 12 pages of new documents they say prove department officials attempted to block the website.
“Today, we are releasing further evidence that the Department of Education continues to undermine and harm these defrauded students at every turn,” the Democratic members said.
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The documents made public by Maloney and Scott include change orders to the federal contract between the Education Department and Accenture, the contractor hired to produce the new website, as well as emails between Federal Students Aid employees dated May 21, 2020, that include repeated directives to halt work on the website, including “a request to stop work,” “delay the implementation,” “deferred to a later release” and “all work on borrower defense … should stop for now.”
“I know this is disappointing, as many of us have done a lot of work to get to this point,” Jessica Barrett Simpson, a career staffer at the Education Department who is a program manager of digital customer care at the Federal Student Aid office, wrote in one email to her team.
Together the documents and emails show high-ranking Education Department officials did, in fact, halt the development of the new tool, despite claims that it was never blocked.
In June, U.S. News first reported whistleblower complaints to the Department of Education’s inspector general that high-ranking Education Department officials effectively killed the new online tool. According to the whistleblower, Principal Deputy Undersecretary Diane Auer Jones halted the development of it, claiming it was too user-friendly and would have helped too many borrowers complete the application correctly, without any disqualifying mistakes.
“Anyone who says that there has been any effort by anyone at the Department to delay or obstruct the development of a new borrower defense form or website is lying,” a spokeswoman for the department said at the time.
The development of the website was part of a $90 million federal contract to build one main hub for all federal student aid needs that modernized existing loan servicing portals and made them more user-friendly – in the same way that the application for federal student aid was recently redesigned and streamlined to make it easier for students to apply.
As part of the larger redesign, staff at the Federal Student Aid office, all of whom are career officers and not political appointees, were tasked with developing a website that would allow students to apply for what’s known as borrower defense – a process by which students whose colleges mislead them about things like job placement rates, average earnings post-graduation and the transferability of credits to apply for some or all of their debt to be forgiven.
The documents released Tuesday also include emails showing that Education Department officials restarted work on the website immediately after U.S. News published the story documenting the whistleblower’s complaints. According to one email dated June 30, 2020, the department sent a request for proposal to the contractor, and on July 1, 2020, the department agreed to proceed with a redesigned web tool.
Maloney and Scott also took issue with the $1 million price tag for the redesigned website, which, despite the department’s new borrower defense rules having gone into effect in July, is not slated to be ready for use until at least November.
The documents come on the heels of new evidence from a federal court last week that found that the Education Department denied 94% of borrower defense applicants.
“Regrettably, the Department lacks any credibility to carry out this program fairly for these borrowers and their families,” Maloney and Scott said.