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What we learned about Betsy DeVos’s higher education positions … not much

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, appeared before senators for her confirmation hearing Jan. 17. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

In a hearing that lasted three and a half hours, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos revealed very little about how she intends to govern an agency that oversees thousands of colleges and universities and the trillions of dollars in loans and grants that help keep their doors open.

Higher education took a backseat to K-12 policy at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, but the few times that senators asked DeVos about her stance on key regulations and the role of the government in student lending, she provided vague, noncommittal answers.

Dems raise concern about possible links between DeVos and student debt collection agency

Take this exchange with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on “gainful employment,” a controversial regulation that threatens to withhold federal financial aid from career-training programs whose graduates fail to land jobs earning enough to repay their education loans:

Warren: How do you plan to protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud and abuse by colleges that take in millions of dollars in federal student aid?
DeVos: Senator, um, if confirmed, I will certainly be very vigilant —
Warren: Yeah, I’m asking how. How are you going to do that?
DeVos: The individuals with whom I work in the Department will ensure that federal monies are used properly and appropriately, and I will look forward to working with you —
Warren: So you’re going to subcontract making sure that what happened with universities that cheat students doesn’t happen anymore?
DeVos: No, I didn’t say that.
Warren: You’re going to give that to someone else to do? I just want to know what your ideas are for making sure we don’t have problems with waste fraud and abuse.
DeVos: I want to make sure we don’t have problems with that as well. And if confirmed I will work diligently to ensure that we are addressing any of those issues.
Warren: Well let me make a suggestion on this. It actually turns out that there are a whole group of rules that are already written and are there, and all you have to do is enforce them. So what I want to know is: will you commit to enforcing these rules to ensure that no career college receives federal funds unless they can prove that they are actually preparing their students for gainful employment and not cheating them?
DeVos: Senator, I will commit to ensuring that institutions which receive federal funds are actually serving their students well.
Warren: So you will enforce the gainful employment rule to make sure that these career colleges are not cheating students?
DeVos: We will certainly review that rule and see —
Warren: You’ll review it? You will not commit to enforce it?
DeVos: And see that it is actually achieving what the intentions are.
Warren: I don’t understand about reviewing it. We talked about this in my office. There are already rules in place to stop waste, fraud and abuse, and I don’t understand how you cannot be sure about enforcing them. You know, swindlers and crooks are out there doing backflips when they hear an answer like this. If confirmed, you will be the cop on the beat, and if you can’t commit to use the tools that are already available to you in the Department of Education, then I don’t see how you can be the secretary of education.

Congressional Republicans have made no secret of their intentions to repeal the gainful rule, though that could take years of going through the rule-making process. A much faster way to render the regulation inconsequential would be for the Education Department to decide not to enforce it, which DeVos did not rule out in her testimony.

In her prepared remarks, DeVos upheld vocational education as “a noble pursuit.” Her support for the career training in no way precludes DeVos from policing for-profit schools, but her remarks suggest she is unlikely to continue the crackdown that has made the Obama administration the bane of the industry.

Is the federal government trying to take down the for-profit college industry?

“We need to embrace new pathways of learning,” DeVos said. “For too long a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life. The old and expensive brick-mortar-and-ivy model is not the only one that will lead to a prosperous future.”

When Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told DeVos that he hoped she would provide “great support for our high quality technical schools,” the nominee noted that community colleges and apprenticeships should also be included as a viable alternative to four-year college. Yet she held off from discussing what financial support should be afforded community colleges when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked for her views on using federal-state partnerships to cover the cost of attendance.

Did the idea of free public higher education go down with the Democrats?

Sanders: Will you work with me and others to make public colleges and universities tuition-free through federal and state efforts?
DeVos: Senator, I think that is a really interesting idea and it’s really great to consider and think about. But we also have to consider the fact that there is nothing in life that’s truly free. Somebody has got to pay for it.
Sanders: Right now we have proposals in front of us to substantially lower tax breaks for billionaires in this country, while at the same time low-income kids can’t afford to college. Do you think that makes sense?
DeVos: If your question is really around how can we help higher education and college be more affordable–
Sanders: That wasn’t my question. My question is: should we make public college and universities tuition free so that every family in America, regardless of income, will have the ability to have their kids get a higher education?
DeVos: We can work together and we can work hard on making sure college or higher education in some form is affordable for all young people that want to pursue it.

At a few points throughout the hearing, DeVos made her limited knowledge of education policy apparent. The nominee said student debt had increased nearly 1,000 percent in the last eight years. Debt levels have soared since the 2008 recession, but no where close to that figure, as Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) pointed out.

Franken: You said that student debt has increased by 1,000 percent?
DeVos: 980 percent in eight years. That’s almost 1,000.
Franken: That’s just not so. It’s increased 118 percent in the past eight years. … I’d ask that you get your figures straight about education policy. And that’s why we want more questions because we want to know if this person that we may entrust to be the secretary of education if she has the breadth and depth and knowledge that we would expect from someone who has that important job.

Want to read more about Betsy DeVos? Check out:

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education pick, lauded as bold reformer, called unfit for job

Teachers unions mount campaign against Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos and her family members are major donors to the senators who will vote on her confirmation

Betsy DeVos omitted $125,000 anti-union political donation from Senate disclosure form