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Rohit Chopra Visits Penn for Fels Public Policy in Practice Series

Zhan Okuda-Lim, MPA '17
November 30, 2016

Rohit Chopra, former Special Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Education, visited Penn on November 18th as part of the Fels Institute of Government’s Public Policy in Practice series hosted by Senior Fellow Elizabeth Vale. Chopra began by sharing his observations about the recent election and the direction of public trust in government. Chopra argued in favor of fighting for change and expanded civic engagement in times of political uncertainty, noting that the recent election highlighted eroded trust in public institutions.

Chopra stated  that the revolving door between the private sector and public service is a key contributor to this erosion, observing that some people feel that others enter government simply to find ways to “line their own pockets”—a practice Chopra declared “needs to change.” Furthermore, although Chopra had served on Hillary Clinton’s advance transition team, he expressed hope that the Trump administration has “people in place who can make sure the core operations of government, particularly how the United States is represented overseas, are in place on time.”

Next, the conversation turned to Chopra’s previous work as Assistant Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and his experience addressing student debt, which he noted is the second-largest source of debt held by the public after mortgages. Chopra shared how he views the student debt issue not as one of only college affordability, but rather as a confluence of students, families, and the broader economy. He noted that cheaper tuition will not help individuals who already carry student-loan debt and face tougher challenges accessing credit and loans.

Chopra discussed several key areas to address student debt, including ensuring that student loan services transparently guide students through student loan procedures and policies and holding higher-education institutions, especially for-profit institutions, accountable for focusing on student success instead of cashing out on student debt.

Chopra also shared his optimism for the future of the CFPB, comparing it to the early days of the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Chopra explained that since the its inception during the Great Depression, the SEC has allowed for the creation of wealth because it has ensured some level of confidence of basic standards of market fairness. Similarly, he noted that the CFPB works to instill confidence in consumer markets, and thus it would be economically damaging to dismantle the CFPB. Chopra noted that even critics of government agencies concede that the CFPB is working, especially based on its relatively young track record of recovering almost $12 billion dollars for consumers.

Chopra answered several questions from audience members about the election and consumer protection. He expanded on his earlier comments regarding public trust by arguing that ethics and revolving-door restrictions must be changed on the parts of both government and private firms, such as law and consulting firms. Chopra also argued for the elimination of golden parachutes that incentivize executives to enter government positions, asking rhetorically, “if you go into government with a $10 million bonus, are you doing it for the right reasons?”

Chopra commented that an effective way to build a government culture focused on consumer protection is to enter public service, reflecting on his work at the U.S. Department of Education and the CFPB, and noted that he and colleagues were always mindful of the concerns of consumers and students. Chopra also stated that financial literacy education, while important, is not a singular substitute for broader improvement in math education and stronger enforcement of consumer protection regulations.

Finally, in response to a question about restoring public trust in government, Chopra stressed the importance of public leaders listening to people on the ground, instead of taking information filtered through special interests. Chopra called on aspiring public leaders to ensure they are grounded by “looking hard” at facts and the real, lived experiences of people whom public leaders serve.

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Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu