Leader of Federal Office of Student Aid resigns after FAFSA crisis

The nation’s top student aid official will resign, the Education Department said Friday, after the disastrous launch of a new financial aid form that upended the college admissions process for millions of students this year.

Richard Cordray, who took the helm of the federal office of student aid in 2021, will relinquish his duties in June, Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona said in a statement.

Mr. Cordray’s departure coincides with a difficult admissions season. College administrators, students and members of Congress from across the political spectrum have lambasted the Department of Education for an identical redesign of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, throwing the usual college admissions process into disarray.

In his role, Cordray also oversaw a number of other programs, including many parts of the Biden administration’s broad vision of reducing student debt for millions of borrowers through loan forgiveness and income-driven repayment plans.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Rich has helped change the lives of millions of people for the better,” Mr. Cardona said in a statement.

Before joining the department, Cordray spent six years as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he prosecuted debt collectors and lenders and helped obtain about $12 billion in debt refunds and cancellations for nearly 30 million people.

Although Cordray had no experience managing education programs, his arrival was celebrated as a victory by the Biden administration while Cardona was working hard to promote and implement President Biden’s plan to cancel more than $400 billion in student debt for tens of millions of borrowers.

By the end of last year, however, the Biden administration’s student debt plans were struck down by the Supreme Court, and warning signs emerged that the Department of Education had missed other priorities, namely the rollout of the new FAFSA form.

The project to simplify the module and make it more accessible to students and their families had been underway since the beginning of Mr Cordray’s tenure. But when the module was due to launch last year, the department was still making changes.

After missing its deadline, the agency submitted the new form in late 2023, only to discover a dizzying array of bugs and data errors that locked students out of the application and generated erroneous financial calculations.

By this spring, Mr. Cordray was scrambling to contain the damage, bringing in staff members from across the department who had never worked on the FAFSA for emergency sprints to review applications, and personally conducting overtime and weekend shifts to try to repair the damage. to recordings of internal discussions obtained by the New York Times.

The failed rollout infuriated education advocates who expressed concern that barriers to applying for aid this year would disproportionately affect the most vulnerable students and could lead to declining enrollments at many smaller colleges who were already facing financial pressures.

By April, Republicans in Congress were openly questioning Mr Cordray’s leadershipand asking the Department of Education to resign during a hearing on the FAFSA. Experts and university administrators later testified about the harm the failed launch has caused to students this year.

“If there were a financial aid director or even a college president who delayed financial aid on their campus for up to six months, the professional price that would be paid would be quite high,” Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of College Administrators student financial aid, he told lawmakers at the hearing.

Mr. Cardona, who has repeatedly insisted in public that the simplified form will benefit generations of future students despite this year’s difficulties, made no mention of the FAFSA in announcing Mr. Cordray’s departure.

“We are grateful for Rich Cordray’s three years of service, during which he made more transformative changes in the student aid system than any of his predecessors,” he said.