2023 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Melissa Emrey-Arras 

Led investigations and proposed recommendations that have helped millions access federal student aid and have their student loans forgiven, while rooting out fraudulent student loan schemes.

During a 21-year career at the Government Accountability Office, Melissa Emrey-Arras has transformed the oversight of critical higher education financial aid programs, cracking down on corrupt federal student loan schemes, pushing the Department of Education and colleges to calculate loan and schooling costs more accurately, and helping millions access federal student aid and have portions of their loans forgiven. 

Her accomplishments range from exposing fraudulent practices that enabled ineligible borrowers to receive student loans to improving and streamlining landmark initiatives such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and helping unhoused youth and student parents access federal aid.  

“She has been a crusader against fraud in higher education,” said Gene Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general and head of the GAO. “Her work also has been transformative in helping a broad range of students access much-needed student aid to attend college.” 

Giving the watchdog its teeth 

Emrey-Arras joined the GAO—often called the “congressional watchdog” agency—in 2001 after working at adoption and foster care agencies. The experience opened her eyes to how government can help vulnerable individuals and motivated her to safeguard the integrity of federal programs. 

In 2009, she led an undercover team that exposed corrupt test proctors who were administering exams that determined whether students without a high school diploma would qualify for federal college aid. Later, she reported on college financial aid officers receiving kickbacks for steering borrowers to certain student loan companies and made recommendations for the Department of Education to address the problem. 

“Her work has been instrumental in helping the government safeguard taxpayer funds from fraud, waste and abuse,” said Orice Williams Brown, GAO’s chief operating officer. 

In 2016, she discovered that the Department of Education had not accounted for inflation when calculating the cost of Income-Driven Repayment plans, which reduce loan payments for low earners. Factoring in salary and wage growth decreased the estimated costs of these plans to the government by billions of dollars. 

Six years later, Emrey-Arras found that 91% of colleges and universities had been underestimating their education costs in financial aid offers to students and their families. As a result, Congress is considering legislation that would require colleges to provide more accurate cost information.  

Helping eligible students access loans and have their student loans forgiven 

Emrey-Arras also has closed large coverage gaps in Department of Education aid programs, helping eligible students obtain critical funding for their schooling. 

In 2018, she discovered that the department was denying 99% of the people who applied for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which forgives student loans for employees working in government and nonprofit organizations after 10 years of on-time payments.  

The department responded by making important management improvements to the program and streamlining the application to help avoid errors and increase access to the program.  

Most recently, she discovered that the department had lost track of certain student loan payments and identified thousands of borrowers in Income-Driven Repayment plans who could be eligible for immediate loan forgiveness. “The burden is on the federal government to provide forgiveness. That was not happening, and I knew something needed to change,” Emrey-Arras said. “People need to know that the federal government is true to its word and can be trusted.”  

Emrey-Arras said she is most proud of her work on behalf of unhoused youth. In 2016, she discovered that college students who lack permanent housing struggled to verify their status to access federal student aid. In response, Congress made changes to enable these students to be automatically reverified, unless a financial aid administrator has conflicting information. She has also issued recommendations that student parents be informed about the availability of federal student aid to pay for childcare.  

Observers noted that these efforts typify Emrey-Arras’ work on behalf of the public.  

“She wants to help people,” said Katherine Valle, special assistant to the president on education for the White House Domestic Policy Council. “All her work is done with the end goal of making government work better for those it serves.”  

During a remarkable public service career, Paul A. Volcker, for whom this award is named, advised presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, held a series of critical government positions, promoted important financial reforms and exercised tremendous influence over U.S. economic policy. He twice headed a nonpartisan Commission on the Public Service that recommended sweeping changes in the federal government’s organization and personnel practices. He was outspoken about the importance of an effective government, the need to restore faith in our government, and he understood that our country’s success depends on the quality of our public servants. Read more