Betsy DeVos is the new secretary of education. Her rocky confirmation process has raised questions about how she will lead the agency that has so much influence over the lives of students at all stages of the education system. Because her focus has been on K–12 and there is little evidence that she has given much thought to higher education policy, we do not know what her priorities will be for college access and success. Still, DeVos’s positions on K–12 education provide clues about how she might work with Congress to change higher education.
We know that DeVos believes in markets and opposes regulation. Although the secretary of education cannot unilaterally reverse all established regulations, she can instruct her staff to work with the White House and Congress to repeal existing protections. The announcement of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s role in leading a task force on higher education reform also suggests that the White House plans to direct a program of deregulation.
While DeVos will not be at the center of the activity, all signals point to her going along with changes that will support the interests of for-profit players in higher education—not putting the interests of students at the top of the agenda.
Devos’s positions on charter schools and vouchers provide strong signals that she will advocate stepping back from federal regulations designed to protect college students from institutional fraud and abuse. Instead, she is likely to argue that the government’s role should be to provide information. From this perspective, armed with this information, parents and students will make their own decisions. Institutions that do not serve students well will struggle to meet enrollment targets. The invisible hand of the competitive market will eliminate institutions that make false promises.
A shift away from oversight and toward support of market forces is likely to foster the resurgence of a for-profit sector of higher education that leaves many students worse off than they would have been had they never enrolled in college.
We do not know what DeVos’s position will be on Pell grants. She voices concern for low-income students, but seems unlikely to be a strong advocate for increasing the federal role in supporting them, either through the student aid system or through strengthening initiatives at the colleges that enroll large numbers of low- and moderate-income students.
It seems unlikely that proponents of revising private lenders’ role in the federal student loan system will succeed, although we could see a contraction of federal student lending that leads more students to rely on private markets with their minimal protections.
It’s important to remember that when it comes to college opportunity, regulation is not a clear partisan issue. The higher education community believes some regulations are critical for protecting students and others impede institutions’ ability to operate efficiently and effectively. The Obama administration introduced regulations on issues ranging from the definition of credit hours to how to handle sexual assault on campus, and many in the higher education community objected.
But under the Obama administration, the Department of Education also took significant action, in cooperation with the White House, to strengthen consumer protection in the higher education market and to reduce the burden of student debt. It is reasonable to believe that the department under DeVos, working with the new White House, will attempt to dismantle much of what the previous administration built. A cooperative Congress is likely to support these efforts.