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How will DeVos influence higher education?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who took office Tuesday, is shown speaking here during her January confirmation hearing (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began her first full day on the job Wednesday, college leaders and analysts were watching for signs of where the Trump administration stands on student debt, for-profit regulations and other higher education issues.    

DeVos, whom the Senate narrowly confirmed Tuesday, has been somewhat vague about her vision for higher ed, although that sector accounts for a significant share of the work of the Education Department.

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“The confirmation debate was heavily focused on K-12 education and civil rights, but in reality a very large portion of the department’s staff and an overwhelming majority of the department’s funding is tied to higher education initiatives,” said Rohit Chopra, a senior fellow at Consumer Federation of America and former education official under President Barack Obama. “The new secretary will find herself much more occupied by troubles in the student loan market than she anticipated.”

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Chopra said DeVos will take the helm at a time when the department is contending with stubbornly high student loan defaults and mounting student complaints about for-profit colleges. The department manages nearly $2 trillion in loans and grants, the largest student aid portfolio in its 37-year history. 

The large federal role in higher education finance, and troubles with servicing and collection of student debt, have fueled criticism of the agency’s stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

But those issues are likely take a backseat to the Trump administration’s pledge to roll back regulation of colleges and universities, Chopra said. On the campaign trail, Trump said reducing regulation would clear a path for schools to cut administrative staff and lower their costs.

DeVos has wide discretion to reduce regulations, said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. The importance of that issue to the Trump administration was underscored when Liberty University President recently said he had been tapped to lead a task force on reassessing the federal role in higher education.

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Hartle said the creation of that panel signals that the administration and DeVos want “an independent, comprehensive look” at higher ed policy before making a lot of changes. 

“There has been a substantial expansion in federal regulatory authority,” said Hartle, noting that the Obama administration put in place 24 higher education regulation packages in the last eight years. “The Trump team will have a fair amount of work just reviewing those regulations and deciding which ones they want to leave in place, which ones they want to eliminate and which ones they’d like to streamline.” 

In the meantime, DeVos may turn to Capitol Hill for action on higher ed. Congress could seek to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which among other things governs financial aid. The 50-year-old law was last reauthorized in 2008 and is due for a rewrite. Lawmakers have expressed interest in making headway this year, even though it is a tremendous undertaking.

“You’ve got an administration that has come in without deep policy expertise…It does cede a lot of influence to Congress,” said Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “It will be difficult for the administration to put out a whole bunch of reforms around higher education when Congress sort of has a leg up on how all of these programs work, and has been working on an agenda for a while.” 

Lawmakers plan to use the Congressional Review Act to rescind Obama’s overhaul of the borrower defense to repayment law. The rules aim to make it easier for college students to have loans discharged when they’ve been defrauded by schools. Congress could also make short work of Obama’s regulations by cutting off funding to enforce them through the appropriations process. 

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Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) raised concerns that DeVos refused to commit to enforce borrower defense or gainful employment rules. The latter threaten to withhold federal student aid from career-training programs whose graduates fail to land jobs earning enough to repay education loans.

Those regulations would become moot if the department backs off on enforcement. While DeVos could certainly drive that decision, it would also be influenced by other officials at the department, such as the under secretary, deputy secretary or assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

“Once those high level officials are selected, we all need to be paying really close attention to who they are because they’re going to be running the day-to-day operations in terms of which regulations are going to be enforced and which ones aren’t,” said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at the New America Foundation. 

Chopra agreed, saying the Senate should hold hearings for all of the senior department heads because it’s critical that “those individuals are fully vetted to determine whether they are actually qualified to police this trillion-dollar market.”

While Republicans and many college presidents complain that regulations are too onerous, Laitinen said the sheer size of the government’s investment in student aid warrants rules to hold schools accountable.

Ultimately, the president’s first budget will give the clearest picture of his education priorities, Delisle said.

“It’s hard to hide from policymaking at that point because you have to put a spending number with every program in the department,” he said. 

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