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Richard Cordray speaks into a microphone at a hearing in May 2023.

House Republicans say Richard Cordray, the chief operating officer of the Office of Federal Student Aid, should be fired over issues with the new FAFSA.

Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

After months of decrying the Biden administration’s disastrous handling of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) and pledging to hold someone accountable, Republicans in Congress have begun to focus their ire on one man: Richard Cordray, who leads the agency that oversees the application.

“It’s time for Cordray to go and for the department to wake up and realize that blindly following Biden’s agenda is irreparably damaging student success,” Representative Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed on Friday.

Frustration and fury over the slow and glitchy FAFSA rollout, which has created havoc for many students and colleges alike, is bipartisan. But Cordray, the man in charge, is a familiar foe for conservatives on Capitol Hill, and so far only they have called for his dismissal.

The former Ohio attorney general, an ally of Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, took over the Office of Federal Student Aid in May 2021. The agency, which is under the Education Department, has an expansive portfolio that includes running the student loan system and FAFSA. Cordray’s appointment was decried by Foxx and other conservatives.

Cordray previously tussled with Republicans when he was the founding director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—an agency loathed by conservatives—from 2012 to 2017. At the consumer-watchdog agency, which was Warren’s brainchild, Cordray investigated for-profit colleges, ratcheted up oversight of the companies that manage student loans and sued the department’s largest student loan servicers. After surviving calls for his dismissal, Cordray left the bureau in 2017, during the Trump administration, to run unsuccessfully as a Democrat for governor in Ohio.

Republicans on Capitol Hill didn’t like Cordray when he ran the bureau, repeatedly seeking to scrap it and calling for his ouster, and they questioned his capability to run Federal Student Aid. Since he started that job, they’ve criticized him at every turn—from FSA’s plans to return borrowers to repayment after a three-year pandemic pause to its decision to fine Liberty University $14 million for violating federal campus safety laws.

But it’s the bungling of the new FAFSA that has sparked a hue and cry for Cordray’s ouster. Republicans say he failed in a core responsibility by botching the FAFSA launch and focusing instead on forgiving student loans. That echoes a common criticism for congressional Republicans who have repeatedly blamed the FAFSA failures on the Biden administration being distracted by debt relief. And it makes Cordray an ideal fall guy, because he has carried out those efforts to forgive student loans.

“We don’t need left-wing ideologues running the Department of Education,” Foxx said in her statement.

An Education Department official said Friday in a statement that it’s not the time to point fingers. “It is time to address the challenges and deliver on this historic and unprecedented overhaul of this antiquated system,” the official said. “Our focus right now is on getting students to submit their FAFSA forms and supporting colleges as they offer aid packages.”

Nevertheless, the calls for accountability for the botched FAFSA have grown in the recent weeks as errors and issues piled up. The application, which unlocks billions in financial assistance for millions of students, launched months behind schedule and students have faced challenges in filling out and submitting the application. Colleges only recently started receiving students’ application information—a critical step that allows institutions to calculate what financial assistance a student can expect. Aid offers usually begin going out in December or January.

At a House subcommittee hearing last week on the “FAFSA Fail,” Cordray was called out several times by frustrated Republicans. After the hearing, the committee called for his removal.

Federal Student Aid is a performance-based organization under the Education Department, which means it has more flexibility than other agencies in terms of hiring and contracting practices. The education secretary appoints and oversees the chief operating officer, but unlike other performance-based organizations in the government, FSA doesn’t have a board of directors.

Calls for Cordray’s removal aren’t just coming from Congress. Editorials in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Examiner have laid the blame for the FAFSA launch at Cordray’s feet.

“He has yet to apologize for any of this,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote last month. “If Mr. Cordray were a CEO, he’d have been sacked long ago, but in government no one is ever held accountable.”

Democrats and advocates for debt relief say that Congress bears some responsibility for the mess, since it provided no additional funding to help with the overhaul it mandated in December 2020. They’ve also questioned the performance of other players in the process, such as the outside company tasked with creating the new form. Warren and Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, questioned the role of General Dynamics, the contractor awarded a $121.8 million FAFSA contract, in a letter sent last week. “It now appears that your efforts to date have been a near-total failure and that the FAFSA problems caused by this failure are harming millions of students and hundreds of colleges,” the senators wrote to the company’s CEO.

In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, Warren said she had full confidence in Cordray’s leadership.

“Rich Cordray is a dedicated public servant who is working day and night to fix the broken system to finance higher education,” the senator said. “Republican lawmakers should take a hard look in the mirror after failing to fully fund FSA and do something useful like investigate the contractors who were paid over $100 million for this failure.”

While Cordray is emblematic for conservatives of all that is wrong with the Biden administration’s approach to federal student aid, consumer protection and debt relief groups have cheered his leadership of FSA, particularly its efforts to improve the student loan system. Cordray certainly has been busy since taking over. While overseeing the restart of student loan payments after the pandemic pause, he’s carried out a number of reforms to student loan programs and helped the Biden administration forgive $153 billion in loans for nearly 4.3 million Americans. He’s also levied record fines against colleges accused of running afoul of federal rules and regulations—none of which has pleased conservative critics.

Foxx said in her statement that Cordray “continues to apply the same partisan ‘solutions’ to a broken student aid system instead of focusing on actual reforms mandated by Congress like the congressionally mandated FAFSA.”

The Education Department official countered in a statement that under Cordray’s leadership, “FSA has also taken unprecedented steps to fix the broken student loan system, return more than 28 million borrowers to repayment and combat student loan scammers,” all despite flat funding from Congress.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona didn’t directly answer questions from a House budget subcommittee last week that pressed him to explain whether resources were diverted away from FAFSA for debt relief. Instead, he highlighted Federal Student Aid’s role in carrying out policies and the agency’s extensive to-do list over the last few years.

“Operationalizing our policies falls under FSA, regardless of what the policies are,” Cardona said. “FSA is the body that’s implementing the decisions that were being made in other places.”

While Republicans are currently focused on Cordray, they may turn their attention next to his boss, Cardona, who will likely be called soon to testify before the House education committee.

“Now is the time for Secretary Cardona to explain his abysmal leadership to the American people,” Foxx said at the hearing.

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