Betsy DeVos Hands Victory to Loan Firm Tied to Adviser Who Just Quit

Americans who default on some of their federal student loans are likely to pay more after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reversed an Obama administration directive limiting some fees. But it turns out the Trump administration decision has some beneficiaries—including the father of a key DeVos lieutenant who just quit.

DeVos’s decision, announced Thursday in a memorandum to the student loan industry, allows companies known as guaranty agencies to charge distressed student debtors fees equivalent to 16 percent of their total balance, even when borrowers agree within 60 days to make good on their bad debt.

The reversal is almost certain to hand United Student Aid Funds Inc., the nation’s largest guaranty agency, a victory in its two-year legal battle against her department. The fees could translate into an additional $15 million in annual revenue for the company, filings in a related lawsuit suggest. Until Jan. 1, United Student Aid Funds was led by Bill Hansen, who served as Deputy Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush. His son, Taylor Hansen, a former for-profit college lobbyist, was until three days ago one of the few DeVos advisers with professional experience in higher education.

The younger Hansen resigned from the Education Department on Friday, department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said in an e-mail. Hansen couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on his departure.

Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a persistent critic of the new Republican administration, said on Twitter the rule change was “an early Father’s Day gift in the Hansen household.” U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, was equally blunt: “There’s no question” that Taylor Hansen’s family ties posed a conflict of interest.

Tens of millions of dollars in revenue was at stake for companies such as United Student Aid Funds, which until 2015 had regularly charged borrowers the fee. A senior executive there last year warned in a court filing that the Obama administration’s decision to prohibit the fees—and to remind the industry that such fees had long been banned—generated “potentially massive retroactive liability” for companies such as United Student Aid Funds in the form of federal fines and lawsuits from aggrieved debtors. The company reckons it levied as much as $119 million in these fees from 2007 to 2015, or about $15 million annually.

Meanwhile, other companies active in student loan matters faced the prospect of having to reverse years of assessed fees and unravel tens of thousands of borrowers’ accounts to recalculate their balances, according to a legal filing last year by the National Council of Higher Education Resources, a Washington trade association. Had the Obama administration’s decision stood, a federal judge warned in 2015 that the entire student loan industry faced the prospect of being sued for allegedly violating anti-racketeering laws by imposing the fees.

DeVos’s decision is likely to put those concerns to rest.

With almost all senior positions at the Education Department vacant—and few political hires with professional experience in higher education—the younger Hansen may have wielded significant influence on DeVos’s policies. With his departure, the department has yet another post to fill.

“We have no idea what Betsy DeVos thinks about or wants to do on higher education policy. If one of the key people advising her is someone whose close family member is hoping to charge defaulted borrowers a lot more money, that’s not a good sign of her agenda,” Miller said before the department announced Taylor Hansen’s exit.

Both the Education Department and Bill Hansen’s current organization, of which he is chief executive, Strada Education Network (formerly known as USA Funds), said there’s no impropriety. Taylor Hansen recused himself from “all matters” related to United Student Aid Funds’ lawsuit challenging the Obama administration directive, Bradshaw said. “He served ably and without conflict and decided his service had run its course,” Bradshaw said Monday, declining further comment. But it’s unclear whether Taylor Hansen’s recusal extended to internal department discussions over the appropriateness of the fees. Bradshaw didn’t answer additional questions, and Taylor Hansen didn’t respond to emails, phone calls, and a message sent on social network LinkedIn seeking comment.

Bob Murray, a spokesman for Bill Hansen, said no one representing the company had asked Taylor Hansen to intervene on its behalf in its dispute with the department. Furthermore, he said, United Student Aid Funds is now owned by Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. Murray said that Bill Hansen declined to comment.

United Student Aid Funds said in court filings that the Obama administration unfairly changed longstanding Education Department policy when it announced in 2015 that fees added to quickly resolved defaulted loans were illegal. For example, according to industry lobby National Council of Higher Education Resources, the department had never flagged the fee as inappropriate in any of the more than 135 audits or reviews it conducted of companies such as United Student Aid Funds since 1992. The feds, the group said, “knowingly acquiesced for years.” In the eyes of the industry, DeVos is simply righting a wrong by reversing Obama’s move.

Bill Hansen nonetheless benefits from DeVos’s decision. Strada is still liable for potential costs stemming from United Student Aid Funds’ lawsuit against the Education Department, as well as a related class action lawsuit filed by borrowers over the same issue, said Richard George, chief executive of Great Lakes.

United Student Aid Funds reached a proposed settlement in January to resolve the proposed class action, filed by Minnesota resident Bryana Bible in 2013 on behalf of borrowers charged what she alleged to be illegal fees. The deal calls for 35,516 borrowers, and their lawyers, to split $23 million to partially reimburse them for as much as $119.1 million in fees assessed over eight years that, under Obama administration guidelines, they shouldn’t have been charged. A federal judge is due to decide on the proposed settlement in June.

The now-permissible fees could also beneficially impact Strada’s future revenue under an agreement that calls for Great Lakes to give Strada grants partly based on how United Student Aid Funds’ loans perform, a person familiar with the matter said. When annualized, the fees represent about 13 percent of United Student Aid Funds’ average annual income over the past five years, according to its financial reports.

For struggling borrowers, said Rohit Chopra, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America who previously advised Obama’s Education Department and was the top student loan official at the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “this just adds insult to injury.”

(h/t Bloomberg)