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Miguel Cardona and New York Times reporter Erica Green sit in green chairs. Green is wearing a newsprint dress.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona answers questions May 30 at the Education Writers Association annual conference in Las Vegas.

James Minichello, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

LAS VEGAS—The Education Department did not take away money or resources from the overhaul of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) to support student debt relief, as some Congressional Republicans have alleged, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said defiantly Thursday.

“We’ve been devoting resources to FAFSA since we got in,” Cardona said in a keynote interview with The New York Times at the Education Writers Association’s national conference in Las Vegas. “We recognized early on that it needed to be delayed and we continue to find ways to move it along. But the idea we took resources away from this to do that is false.”

The botched launch of the new FAFSA was the first topic of discussion in the wide-ranging interview before a packed ballroom of journalists and other media professionals. The session also touched on the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer banning race-conscious admissions, civil rights investigations into campus antisemitism and other issues in K-12 education.

Cardona said that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) was handling the recent influx of investigations in the wake of campus protests critical of the war in Gaza and a rise in antisemitic incidents, but that Congress needs to give OCR money for additional investigators.

“The office was decimated,” he said. “We need to get it back to defend our students.”

Cardona also addressed what he sees as growing political interference in the nation’s K-12 schools and colleges that’s intended to create division.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure students feel welcome, seen for who they are, respected and let the political stuff stop at the doorstep,” he said. “That’s what they’re dealing with right now. It’s hard enough to lead schools and lead colleges, but when you have that interference, and quite frankly, a lot of it is just people trying to make a name for themselves politically.”

Focus on FAFSA

Cardona and his Education Department are nearly six months into the FAFSA crisis, which has been marked by technical glitches and devastating delays, and so questions about FAFSA were a key part of Thursday’s fireside chat. But Cardona offered little new information or insight into what went wrong with this year’s launch, though he pointed out that the FAFSA system hadn’t been updated for 40 years and noted that Congress didn’t provide more money for the new FAFSA when it was authorized.

The department has said that the problems with the current form are fixed, though some students say they continue to struggle to access and complete the form. FAFSA submission and completion rates are still lagging, with 11 percent fewer students submitting applications compared to last year. Institutions are worried that the FAFSA complications will drive students away. The Delaware College of Art and Design cited “unexpected issues” with the FAFSA launch as one reason for its closing. Meanwhile, the financial aid application for the 2025–26 school year is slated to launch in four months.

As he told Congress recently, Cardona reiterated that he expects the form to launch Oct. 1, and that the department will be starting in the summer to get kids excited about filling out the FAFSA.

“My expectation is more than what we’ve done in the past,” Cardona said. “We are not going to normalize 50 to 60 percent completion.” (About 53 percent of high school seniors in the Class of 2023 filled out a FAFSA.)

When pressed to explain whether the department understood the gravity of the botched roll-out, and reminded that he only recently apologized and that the department’s optimistic updates created “a cognitive dissonance,” Cardona replied, “We’re acutely aware of the challenges that it provided [and] the obstacles that it provided, but we’re also aware that this system right now is going to get better, and it’s going to continue to get better every year.”

Cardona did not directly answer when asked about the impact to the current group of students who many fear will bear the brunt of the delays, despite potential benefits for future classes of students. Instead, he noted that 50 percent of students who file a FAFSA don’t end up going to college.

“That’s a number that I want to address,” he said.

FAFSA Issues Prompt Review

Ahead of the interview, Cardona announced a “full-scale review” of the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), an agency within the Education Department that oversaw the FAFSA project. The plan aims to modernize FSA and ensure the agency “works better and addresses ongoing management and operational challenges,” according to a department news release.

“Over the last three years, the Department and FSA have made great strides in making sure federal financial aid is put in the hands of students,” Cardona wrote. “We have also taken unprecedented steps to protect borrowers from servicing errors while holding servicers accountable. However, changes are needed to make sure students, borrowers, and families have a better user experience with FSA, and we can achieve better outcomes for the millions of people we serve.”

The plan includes searching for a new chief operating officer, a position that will be vacant at the end of June when Richard Cordray steps down. A search for the new COO is underway; in the meantime, Denise Carter, previously the department’s chief financial officer, has been named Principal Deputy Chief Operating Officer to oversee the agency.

“She understands the importance of immediate-term improvements to FSA’s execution and management and is already taking steps to tighten processes for FSA projects and programs,” Cardona wrote in the letter.

The department also is planning to hire an independent consultant to make recommendations about how to improve the agency’s structure and processes, among other areas. Other steps include reviewing contracts to ensure they are structured to hold vendors accountable for meeting key deadlines, restructuring senior leader reporting protocols to increase accountability and creating a new ITT innovation team.

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