Cardona Tells Arkansas Teachers Student Debt Relief Meant to ‘Prevent Defaults’

Sanders, Oliva criticize federal education chief in letter

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, left, speaks to a group of educators in Little Rock on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, including Little Rock Schools Superintendent Jermall Wright. (Sonny Albarado/Arkansas Advocate)

Help fund stories like this. Donate now!

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told a group of Arkansas educators Tuesday that the goal of the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness program “is to prevent defaults.”

“Which is better, letting someone pay what they can afford or throwing our hands up and doing nothing?” Cardona asked during a roundtable discussion with nine teachers and others at Arkansas Education Association headquarters near the state Capitol in Little Rock.

Cardona also acknowledged delays and problems with the rollout of a streamlined Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process, but said, “It’s working now.” He encouraged students and parents to fill out the online application.

“I helped my own kid fill it out and it took only 15 to 20 minutes,” he said, comparing it to the hour or more needed to fill out the old form.

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t meet with Cardona. Sanders and Oliva sent a letter to Cardona on Monday criticizing him, Biden and the U.S. Department of Education.

“Your department is a constant source of frustration for Americans and Arkansans,” Sanders and Oliva said in their letter. “You oppose education freedom.”

They wrote that the president’s latest student loan forgiveness plan “is unfair, unwise and unlawful.”

Regarding FAFSA, the governor and her education chief said “students, particularly from low-income families, need answers.”

“State government needs clarity,” they wrote, noting that officials are “conditionally awarding” scholarships to ensure students know they’ll receive their state scholarships.

Addressing the governor’s comments after the meeting with educators, Cardona said, “I want to work with the governor. I know that she’s probably been working a lot too. Let’s work together and make sure it happens.”

Referring to Sanders’ signature education legislation, the LEARNS Act, that raised teacher salaries and created tutoring programs, Cardona said, “I’m glad to see some of the provisions of the recent legislation but there’s still a lot of work to do. I think we can go farther for the students of Arkansas if we work together.

“We need to help our educators. We need to serve our students. We do it better when we do it together,” he said.

“It’s one thing to send a letter to me, but tell that to teachers who’ve been working 20 years and can’t afford to buy a home. We’re trying to bring people into the profession,” he said, noting that many borrowers who will benefit from the loan forgiveness plan are teachers.

He urged students and their parents not to be deterred from filing out the FAFSA form.

“I know it’s been frustrating, but the bottom line is it’s working now. So if you haven’t applied yet, do it now. We know there’s potentially 600,000 more students that can access federal aid that couldn’t before with the old system,” he said.

He noted that his department has received 26% fewer federal aid applications from Arkansas than last year.

“We want to do everything we can to get those applications in,” he said. “It should be quicker. The process makes it easier to access more federal dollars.”

Cardona said an intense push by officials last week resulted in hundreds of thousands of students sending in their applications.

“And those students who did, their colleges already have the information. The goal now is to get the word out it’s up and running,” he said.

After the meeting at AEA headquarters, Cardona visited Central High School where students participated in a clinic about the new financial aid application.

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.

Help fund stories like this. Donate now!

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today