Betsy DeVos Remains a Blank Slate on Postsecondary Education
What does the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary mean for higher learning? Both journalists and higher education experts have struggled to answer that question in the wake of the billionaire Republican donor’s razor thin confirmation. Her record promoting charter schools and subsequent gaffe-filled confirmation hearing set off what could generously be described as a wave of intense panic and outrage among both Democrats and traditional education stakeholders.
The chief obstacle to a clear answer is the more or less total absence of a higher education background or record from which to draw. DeVos made her bones in K-12 education, using both money and influence to push private charter schools and vouchers. But when it comes to higher education, even those who follow Michigan politics closely struggle to name an issue she has supported or opposed.
It is a replay of the 2016 election, when Donald Trump nearly made it through the entire campaign without substantively discussing his higher education views. Now he has a secretary of education who has said even less on the topic.
DeVos a blank slate on higher ed
“We do cover higher ed policy, but I don’t ever remember Betsy DeVos being involved here,” says Lou Glazer of the state-based policy nonprofit Michigan Future.
Dr. Brendan Cantwell, assistant professor of higher and adult education at Michigan State University, says DeVos was not on his radar before being nominated, and he could not think of a local higher education cause in Michigan that she was involved with.
“People who study K-12 and particularly school choice issues followed her and the organizations she supported,” Cantwell says. “Higher education analysts were not that closely attending to her, and I think that’s just because there wasn’t a tremendous emphasis on higher education in her work.”
Without anything substantive for policy experts to use as an anchor, both supporters and critics of the Trump administration are forced to resort to speculation on what sort of plans may be in the works. Cantwell says he could envision a wide spectrum of possibilities, including the administration and Department of Education deferring to congressional Republicans who have an abundance of expertise and policy proposals ready to go.
Where Congress could go
If the above happens, there is an established policy road map to follow. “I think the gainful employment regulations would be a target, I think that the Department of Education’s investigation over Title 9 violations, particularly campus sexual assault, might be deemphasized,” Cantwell says. “I can imagine the federal government encouraging novel approaches to finance higher education, such as human capital investment schemes, that might work more in the tax code. I certainly anticipate that there will be some effort to reintroduce private banks as important intermediaries in student loan lending.”
It should be noted that despite DeVos’ appointment, she is not a Trump loyalist, nor does she reside on the political fringe. The DeVos family is a well-established powerhouse GOP donor, and in her confirmation hearing, she remarked it was “possible” that they had collectively given at least $200 million to Republican and conservative causes over the years.
Her political record includes past stints as the state party chair of the Michigan GOP and an RNC committeewoman. She was originally a supporter of establishment Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, and Bush returned the favor by enthusiastically supporting her nomination, praising her reform record in a USA Today op-ed.
“The choice of Betsy DeVos to spearhead education reform is inspired. Betsy will fight hard to remove the biggest barriers to improving student achievement in America and give millions of young people the opportunity to rise,” Bush wrote.
Will DeVos be friendly to for-profits?
Another possibility is that DeVos’ history of promoting private education in K-12 will translate to higher education in the form of a much friendlier set of policies for for-profit universities. The sector was a major target of the Obama administration in its final years, buried under Department of Education investigations and regulatory actions.
The election of the staunchly anti-regulation Trump has quietly been interpreted as a boon to the for-profit sector, where industry stocks shot up the day after the election and have outperformed the market. The combination of Trump, who ran his own unaccredited for-profit education company, DeVos, and a business-friendly Republican Congress could see a rollback of oversight and investigations that have led to the closure of schools including ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges as well as the end of a major accreditation agency that specialized in approving for-profit schools.
Jason Delisle, scholar and higher education expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (Disclosure: the DeVos family is a large contributor to AEI) believes brighter days for the for-profit sector were inevitable under any GOP president.
This is because congressional Republicans have long been hostile to a series of Obama-led regulations such as gainful employment and the 90/10 rule, that specifically target for-profits. While Delisle believes the Department of Education under Obama overreached in its zeal, he thinks a unified Republican government will now bear the burden of demonstrating that it is capable of holding for-profit universities, which rely on federal student aid more than any other schools, accountable.
“There is that sort of attitude of ‘this is big government interfering in private enterprise’ but part of me also says you could make an equally strong case that these schools take a lot of federal money. What is the right level of protecting against waste, fraud and abuse in a giant federal program?” Delisle says. “Republicans, I feel, have to have an answer for what are we doing to prevent that, and ‘nothing’ doesn’t sound like a very responsible answer.”
The new administration on student loans
The one concrete higher education proposal Trump did lay out on student loans is also up in the air. Several weeks before the election, Trump gave a detailed and impassioned speech about student debt and presented an ambitious universal income-based student loan repayment plan. He had not brought it up before and hasn’t mentioned it since.
The plan was not included in the set of policies announced by his transition team and hasn’t been brought up by administration officials since he took office. Delisle believes the plan would not pass muster with a Republican-controlled Congress anyway, where there is a strong desire to make the IBR program less generous, not more.
“I don’t think Congress is at all interested in that policy, mainly because about the same time that Trump was talking about his plan, the chairman of the Budget Committee was releasing a report by the Government Accountability Office on how outrageously expensive the IBR repayment program is,” Delisle says.
Lack of postsecondary experience not unusual
Despite the fact that neither the elected president nor the confirmed secretary of education has any public record or plans for higher education, both Cantwell and Delisle say this is not unusual. While the last two administrations had education secretaries with backgrounds in higher education (Arne Duncan, Margaret Spellings), they say past presidents have historically come to office with an overwhelming focus on K-12 issues.
“I think it’s right that we know very little about this administration’s thoughts about higher ed and that is somewhat unusual in the past 20 years, but I don’t think it is all the unusual to have a president or even an education secretary who don’t prioritize higher education,” Cantwell says.
While the bulk of the Obama administration’s higher education record did take place in the back-end of his second term, both Obama and President George W. Bush did have records as senator and governor to draw from and spoke in depth about the topic on the campaign trail. Unlike previous presidents, both took office during a massive boom in student debt, and more than 80 percent of the cumulative $1.3 trillion in total unpaid student loan debt was accrued during their administrations.
Given that context, a lack of a higher background in the executive branch might mean that Congress, which still must tackle the Higher Education Act reauthorization, could step in and take the initiative during a Trump administration. In particular, Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman for the Committee on Health, Education and Pensions, is a veteran of higher education issues and the Tennessee Republican has developed a congenial and respectful relationship with ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.
“It’s always important to recognize that Congress is the branch of government that writes the laws, and you’ve got membership on those committees that’s pretty seasoned,” Delisle says. “They’ve also been in majority for several years now. So they’ve had some time to develop some policy ideas, and they’ve got some policy expertise.”