DeVos Outlines a Vision for Higher Education

Chronicle of Higher Education

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos laid out her clearest positive vision for higher education on Wednesday, calling for a fundamental re-examination of how colleges operate, whom they serve, and how their success should be measured.“We must expand our thinking about what education actually is, as well as resist the urge to expect all students to follow the same track,” DeVos said in prepared remarks to a group of officials from higher-education associations at the offices of the American Council on Education.

While DeVos’s remarks were short on specifics, she named several issues that have challenged higher education for more than a decade, including increased prices and student-loan debt for students, and concerns that colleges are not preparing students for the work force. She also repeated her earlier advocacy of cutting regulations as a way to encourage innovative education models and new kinds of institutions to award a variety of credentials that will lead to well-paying jobs.

“Higher education is about more than job training, but let’s be honest: Almost every student who earns a degree expects some kind of future in the labor market.”

“We know that higher education is about more than job training,” DeVos said, according to her prepared remarks, “but let’s be honest: Almost every student who earns a degree expects some kind of future in the labor market.”

The meeting, along with two white papers released on Wednesday, was meant to set the stage for rule-making sessions,beginning next month, that the Education Department will oversee. Among the topics to be discussed are the accreditation process, encouraging innovation in higher education, and how to regulate distance-education programs and faith-based institutions.

Diane Auer Jones, the department’s principal deputy under secretary, also spoke at the association gathering. Jones, who served as assistant secretary for postsecondary education under President George W. Bush, has become the driving force behind the department’s postsecondary policies.

Attendees said that having even a broad policy blueprint for higher education was a welcome development after nearly two years with little clear direction from the department.

Daniel T. Madzelan, assistant vice president for government affairs at ACE, said the department had asked for the meeting. And for the most part, Madzelan said, the goals laid out by the secretary are longstanding and not controversial.

But disagreements are likely to surface next month, when negotiators begin digging into the details of writing new rules. “We all kind of agree on the ‘what,’” Madzelan said. “It’s the ‘how’” that will need to be hammered out in the rule-making sessions.

‘Tensions and Contradictions’

In many ways, the department’s goal of reducing regulation is just what the association leaders in Washington hope for. In 2015, for example, ACE produced a report, at the behest of Sen. Lamar Alexander, that blasted federal higher-education rules that were “unnecessarily voluminous and too often ambiguous,” with “unreasonable” compliance costs. Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, announced this week that he would not seek re-election in 2020.

At the same time, several who attended the meeting with DeVos expressed concern that a new set of regulations, meant to further the department’s policy goals, could cause more problems for the associations’ members and for students.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents accredited institutions and recognizes some 60 accrediting agencies, has its own wish list of regulatory relief. But Judith S. Eaton, the group’s president, said that any new regulations had to balance the goal of promoting innovation with the risk of allowing bad actors to receive federal student-aid dollars.

One way that could happen is if the department opened the spigot of federal financial aid to noninstitutional providers of courses. But who those providers would be and how the department would ensure accountability are open questions.

“We all want innovation, we all want accountability, but what is the balance?” Madzelan said.

In other cases, DeVos’s goals could themselves be seen as federal overreach, said David A. Bergeron, a former Education Department official, who was not at the meeting. For example, he said, the secretary has identified state-licensure requirements in some vocations as barriers to some education providers that increase both costs and opportunities for students.

“Talk about federal overreach — if the federal government starts to tell cosmetology-licensing boards what their requirements should be,” said Bergeron, who is now a senior fellow in postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

“Talk about federal overreach — if the federal government starts to tell cosmetology-licensing boards what their requirements should be.”

Jason D. Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, compared DeVos’s plans to those of another education secretary under another Republican president: Margaret Spellings.

During her tenure, under President Bush, Spellings produced a report calling for major changes in higher education,including accreditation. But the very notion of regulating accreditation raises a big problem for conservatives who believe in limiting the role of government, Delisle said.

Conservatives don’t want federal oversight, but they like to complain about accreditors, the nongovernmental agencies that have a key role in providing oversight, he said. Either accept the laissez-faire approach — and the consequences — or set real standards, he said.

“This looks like the same issues that the folks on the right have always been wrestling with,” he said, “the same tensions and contradictions we can’t resolve.”

Instead of pursuing its policy agenda through the rule-making process, Delisle said, DeVos could be a stronger advocate for the kinds of broad changes that would require Congress to act through legislation and the budget process.

“The department is kidding itself,” he went on, “if it thinks it will do lots of things to accreditation and all the problems will be solved.”