No hope from Betsy DeVos 

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The Department of Education’s efforts to limit oversight of for-profit colleges and soften civil rights rules fly in the face of the evidence. 

 

The new year has not started off well in Washington. As I write this column, we have just concluded the longest government shutdown in history. The partisan rancor that we’ve all become so used to has now been replaced by a kind of universal rancor, a dark cloud so ominous it would darken the soul of even the most ardent optimist. Dickens himself would be challenged to find “the best of times” in D.C. right now.   

Speaking of hope, nobody should waste their time looking for it at the U.S. Department of Education. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ early days in Washington may have been fraught with missteps and hiccups, but she quickly regained her footing and has since steadfastly focused on one simple goal: to deconstruct the past and create nothing new for the future. The secretary is either oblivious to or uninterested in the public’s desire to see government do more to support education. A December 2018 Harvard/Politico poll placed increasing federal spending on education as one of the top priorities the public has for the new Congress, with 73% saying it was “extremely important.” Yet the secretary continues to diminish the federal role in education. She speaks frequently about the need for innovation in education, yet her actions never seem to offer much to support that vision. She has instead focused on taking things apart: regulations, guidance, even the Department of Education itself. When it comes to leadership, the secretary is far more breaker than maker.  

In her crusade to deregulate as many aspects of education policy as possible, the secretary’s actions fly in the face of what evidence and experience have shown us about crucial issues like civil rights, equity, and access. It’s ironic that during a time when so many leaders and lawmakers are embracing the idea of evidence-based policy making, the secretary seems to turn a blind eye to what is happening in K-12 schools and within colleges and universities. The clearest examples of this are the department’s efforts to limit the federal government’s oversight of for-profit colleges and soften the civil rights protections that exist for students.  

Deregulating for-profit higher education 

A review of the facts on the ground makes it clear that many for-profit colleges and universities are structured around one goal: to make money for investors. The latest example of a for-profit provider going bad is the Education Corporation of America, which announced suddenly in December that it was closing more than 60 schools in 21 states. According to news reports, some students were actually in class when they found out their schools were being closed immediately.  

Not surprisingly, the company was owned by a private equity firm, like many other for-profit institutions. According to Robert Shireman, director of higher education excellence and senior fellow at The Century Foundation (who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations), the most profit-oriented schools are owned by private equity firms. Shireman notes that these schools have higher enrollment rates, higher tuition, and higher student debt, but also have lower graduation rates, lower student loan repayment rates, and lower earnings among graduates. Clearly, these institutions have done nothing to earn our trust.   

Since 2010, federal lawmakers have been trying to hold for-profit colleges more accountable to their students and to the taxpayers whose dollars support the loans students take out to attend these schools. A two-year investigation by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee showed that while for-profit colleges may have an important role to play in higher education, there was a very real need for more oversight, transparency, and protection. The Obama administration took the report to heart and developed protections like the gainful employment rule, which required that higher education institutions meet a certain minimum debt-to-income ratio to be eligible for federal student aid. In addition, a special team of fraud investigators was put in place to help keep these institutions in check. These protections, born from evidence and applauded by virtually everybody except the for-profit colleges themselves and their investors, are now at the top of the secretary’s “must break” list.  

The secretary is either oblivious to or uninterested in the public’s desire to see government do more to support education. 

Efforts to roll back these protections will play out during the very Washington process known as negotiated rulemaking or “neg-reg,” a required process when a department plans to issue or change the rules that guide state and local leaders in implementing a particular law. The process kicked into action last summer, when the Department of Education announced its intentions to establish a negotiated rulemaking committee for the Higher Education Act. Since then, a series of public hearings have been held and nominations for committee members (aka “negotiators”) submitted to the department.  

Bucking tradition, though, Secretary DeVos chose to create one full committee and three subcommittees to manage the broad array of topics. During neg-reg, negotiators will dissect and debate the issues with hopes of coming to a consensus vote among themselves and with the department. However, the department is only required to propose language that all parties have agreed on. If no such agreement is reached, the department has lots of leeway in developing regulations. Experts following the neg-reg process are especially interested in the secretary’s proposed changes to the accreditation process, which they say could have a major impact on efforts to keep the bad actors in higher ed in check. The committees began their work in January with plans to wrap up at the end of March. 

Dismantling student protections 

In addition to targeting many of the rules that guide higher education providers, the secretary has already dismantled many of the civil rights protections for vulnerable and at-risk students. After taking office, she quickly rescinded guidance regarding the rights of transgender students and recently restructured the rules for how postsecondary institutions should investigate sexual assault claims. While I can understand the desire to seek more clarity regarding the rules and procedures for how colleges and universities handle highly sensitive issues, the department’s efforts are not about support and guidance. Instead, the secretary has used her power to 1) unilaterally dismiss numerous civil rights claims because they are “burdensome” and 2) create even more confusion among institutional leaders by watering down the rules and guidance for handling sexual assaults. Once again, the department has turned a blind eye to the evidence, common sense, and students’ needs.  

Evidence-based policy 

Most experts agree that the stakes are high when it comes to the secretary’s past actions and proposed changes. DeVos appears determined to reverse all recent efforts to more fully protect the rights of students. In my view, characterizing all forms of regulation and oversight as innovation killers or examples of federal overreach reflects an ill-informed and somewhat naive worldview about public policy.  

There is plenty of documented evidence that for-profit colleges need oversight. Putting in place sensible policies that ensure these entities play by the same rules as other institutions of higher education is a rational response to a legitimate policy concern. If the current rules are too burdensome, then why not offer up a new and better alternative that is consistent with the evidence and does not make stakeholders cringe with worry?  

If the midterm elections and the current mood of the general public in Washington and beyond are any indication, the victors in the 2020 election will be those who are about vision and hope for the future. The future belongs to those who make it, not break it.   

 

Reference 

Politico & Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2018, December). Americans’ priorities for the new Congress in 2019. Boston, MA: Harvard Opinion Research Program. 

 

 

Citation: Ferguson, M. (2019). Washington view: No hope from Betsy DeVos. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (6), 72-73.  

MARIA FERGUSON (mferguson@gwu.edu) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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