By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy
If my social media feeds are any indication, the sound bites from last week's hearing to consider the nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary have well made their rounds at this point. Touches on higher education were minimal, and confusion over IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), debates about public school funding, and a mention of “potential” grizzly bears dominated the coverage. As the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee prepares for a postponed vote on DeVos’ nomination next Tuesday, Jan. 31, let’s review her exchanges with senators and what we know about the new Donald Trump administration and higher education.
In her opening remarks, DeVos said that “high school graduates are having increasing difficulty accessing affordable higher education.” Citing rising debt burden, she said we should “embrace new pathways of learning,” and that “the old an expensive brick-mortar-and-ivy model is not the only one that will lead to a prosperous future.” She concluded by stating that students should be able to make informed decisions about their future, and she and President Trump agree that “we need to support all post-secondary avenues, including trade and vocational schools, and community colleges.”
Even after three-plus hours of questioning, the best information we have about DeVos’ possible focus in higher education is from that opening statement. Marking a high note for NCAN policy priorities, she did commit to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) that she would help simplify the FAFSA, but did not give details on how. Isakson asked her about reducing the burden on families from the FAFSA, and DeVos responded that, “I don't think we should make it any more difficult than absolutely necessary for students to be able to further their education." (Watch the full exchange at the 1:36:20 mark.)
Otherwise, it seems that her higher education focus will be on promoting trade schools and community colleges. As NCAN expands our work connecting college and career success, we will watch this focus closely to ensure that students have an actual choice among pathways, as well as the information to know which pathways will lead them to success in their desired field. A key aspect to making sure students have access to high-quality career training programs is the strengthened gainful employment rule from the Obama administration. DeVos said she would review and be very vigilant in protecting against waste, fraud and abuse, but declined to say how she would do it, not committing to a new approach or to enforcing the current rule.
In other higher education-related questions, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked a series of questions designed to highlight DeVos’ lack of experience with federal financial aid, student loans, or managing large financial programs. When Warren asked DeVos if she or her children ever received a Pell Grant, it was the only substantive mention of the cornerstone financial aid program during the entire hearing. Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) asked if DeVos would roll back guidance to colleges regarding campus sexual assault, and she said she would review it. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) questioned DeVos about whether information on debt and repayment rates is helpful to students. Several times throughout the hearing, DeVos said she supported information on schools (K-12 or higher ed) and empowering students or parents with choice. However, she did not outline what the information should be, or how it would be maintained or managed.
DeVos’ refrain throughout the hearing was that she looked forward to working with the questioning Senator on a given issue or that she would review what the current policy is before making a decision. With the exception of focus on K-12 school choice, she did not offer specifics in many other areas.
NCAN will continue our practice of reaching out to Education Department officials on areas where we agree, and voicing our concern when policies will not best serve our students. Your voice from the field is more important than ever to sharing the impact of new or changing laws and policies. Stay tuned to Success Digest each Tuesday for crucial updates. Members wishing to have more engagement with the policy process can join the Rapid Response Policy Team to provide feedback on hot topic issues by emailing me.