Dr. Wayne Johnson - A top Education Department official involved in student financial aid resigned Thursday, announcing that he would push an agenda to cancel much of the country's student debt as he vies for a political appointment in the U.S. Senate.
Although he has no political experience, the official, Dr. Wayne Johnson, said his past two years in the Education Department working closely with Secretary Betsy DeVos had given him a unique perspective on how Congress is best suited to fix the $1.6 trillion student debt crisis.
"Basically, once you get a front-row seat and you get in the belly of the beast, no matter how many operational improvements you're going to do, it's not going to fix something broken at its core," Johnson, 67, a former private student loan company executive, said.
But Johnson, who began his career in government in 2017 as the chief operating officer of the Office of Federal Student Aid, said reversing the nation's soaring student loan debt requires passing meaningful legislation in Washington.
"What I've seen firsthand is, yep, people criticize the operational execution of the department," Johnson said. "What they don't understand is the secretary and Federal Student Aid have a duty to fulfill the law as it's handed to them."
Johnson plans to put his name on the list of contenders seeking to fill the seat held by the senior senator from Georgia, Johnny Isakson.
Isakson, a Republican, plans to leave the Senate at the end of the year in the face of various health issues. The office of Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the appointment process.
About 500 applicants are seeking the role, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Johnson, a former banking consultant who completed his doctoral research on student debt, became chief executive of the Reunion Student Loan Finance Corp. in 2012. If selected for the Senate seat, Johnson said he would serve as a Republican.
His goal to relieve most student debt in higher education is to focus on borrowers with outstanding federal loans. That amounts to about 43 million Americans, according to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
Johnson's plan, which he describes on his website, includes forgiving up to $50,000 worth of debt per person, which in essence would wipe out entire loan balances for almost 37 million student borrowers, or "customers," as he refers to them.
Students seeking to attend college or a vocational school would also be eligible for a $50,000 voucher to help cover tuition — a grant that would not need to be repaid.
In addition, student borrowers who have already paid off their loans could apply for income tax credits of up to $50,000.