The record of Betsy DeVos as an activist and advocate on K-12 education has been picked over for more than a month. But relatively little is known about her position on a range of issues that vex higher education policy makers.
Tuesday’s confirmation hearing at the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will be the first time President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. secretary of education has had to answer questions publicly about her thinking on student loan debt, the role of for-profit colleges and accountability in higher education. Democrats on the committee plan to question DeVos about her long history of pursuing policy goals through dark money groups and political donations -- including to members of both parties, but mostly to Republicans. However, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, in a letter this week wrote that she was concerned about DeVos’s “paper-thin record on higher education and student debt.”
Inside Higher Ed asked a number of people who work in or closely observe higher education what questions they would like to see DeVos answer.
Justin Draeger, president and CEO, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators
Often, higher education gets overshadowed in confirmation hearings with the focus being on elementary and secondary education. That’s a shame because the U.S. Department of Education has become the fifth-largest holding company in the U.S., with nearly $1.2 trillion in total assets. What in Ms. DeVos’s background and experience has prepared her to oversee this enormous lending operation and provide the appropriate oversight over the Office of Federal Student Aid, the chief operating officer and the strategic objectives of that organization?
Given the amount of interaction between financial aid administrators and the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid, recent inspector general and Government Accountability Office reports, and congressional hearings and investigations, we would like to know what DeVos has planned to improve the financial aid process implemented by Federal Student Aid. Is she open to taking a wholesale look at restructuring FSA to better serve students, schools, borrowers and other stakeholders? Is she open to exploring, with Congress, ways to ensure that this agency -- which disburses some $150 billion a year in financial aid -- is held more accountable to the public and other stakeholders? What ideas is she bringing to the table to improve the financial aid process, including the financial aid application, funds disbursement, loan servicing and the myriad other arcane processes that add little value to students or taxpayers, but add a significant amount of complexity?
Finally, a common complaint among policy makers and higher education stakeholders is that the department can do much better in providing data about student aid programs, student outcomes and benefit utilization rates. Recently, a government watchdog questioned the budgetary estimates of income-driven repayment plans, and we expressed concern over the incredibly low number of borrowers currently on track for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. How does Ms. DeVos view the department’s obligations on data transparency to the public, and what will she do to improve the data coming out of that agency?
King Alexander, president, Louisiana State University
In order to stop the federalization of public higher education (which has been occurring for nearly three decades), what role does the Department of Education have in ensuring that states do not completely abandon their financial responsibilities to fund their public colleges and universities?
Walter Kimbrough, president, Dillard University
Will you commit to strengthening the Pell Grant program, including restoring summer Pell, raising maximum Pell and indexing Pell permanently to account for inflation?
What is your understanding of the role of historically black colleges and universities in American higher education, and do you have ideas on how to invest in HBCUs?
Steve Gunderson, president and CEO, Career Education Colleges and Universities
The current Department of Education pursued an ideological war against the postsecondary career schools. In doing so, they shut down over 870 such schools, reducing enrollment by over 1.4 million. Can you assure the committee that your department will not conduct a similar war against any element of higher education?
Do you believe there should be one set of outcomes metrics for all schools where taxpayer dollars are invested?
Mark Huelsman, senior policy analyst, Demos
For several decades, per-student funding has stagnated or declined in nearly every state, and with it tuition has continued to rise at public colleges and universities -- the institutions nearly three in four students attend. Rising prices and student debt impact students of color and working-class students more acutely -- affecting aspirations and relegating some students to greater unmet need, debt and risk of noncompletion. What, specifically, do you believe is the role of the federal government in addressing the decline in state funding and lowering the net price of college at public institutions -- particularly in an era of stagnant income and wealth for most families? Do you approve of proposals to provide sufficient grant aid to low- and middle-income students at public institutions so they can pay for college with a part-time or summer job? Is there a federal role in rewarding institutions for graduating high numbers of low-income students while keeping prices low, and if so, what is that role?
Amy Laitinen, director for higher education with the education policy program at New America
The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year to help students go to college. And while there is no question that college is worth it on average, there are too many low-quality programs that leave students either degree-less in debt or with credentials that leave them stuck in poverty-level jobs. What will you do to make sure that taxpayer dollars are spent at institutions that provide students a quality education? Do you believe students have the right to know outcomes from specific programs at specific colleges so they can make informed choices about where to spend their valuable time and money?
David Schafer, student body president, University of Michigan
I’m specifically interested in how Betsy DeVos would respond to questions around the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague letters from 2011 and 2016, in which they outlined how universities and colleges should respond to sexual assault and protect transgender students. Does she plan to maintain these guidelines? What does she believe is the role of the Department of Education in addressing and mitigating instances of campus sexual assault?
Bob Shireman, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, former deputy under secretary of education under President Obama
Do you believe that there is a discernible unit of measure -- let’s call it a “learning outcome” -- that can be counted and compared across students and classes? If so, is the measure capable of comparing across topics and disciplines, such as whether a history class produced more learning than a biology class?
Rudy Fichtenbaum, president, American Association of University Professors; economics professor at Wright State University
It’s a little hard to know in a sense what to expect from DeVos with respect to higher education since nearly her entire track record has to do, really, with supporting privatization of public schools. I’d want to know what kind of plans she has for providing support for low-income students through Pell Grants. I’d like to know if she has any concern about the fact that over half the people teaching in higher education are part-time and are working for what amount to poverty wages.
Mark Schneider, vice president and institutes fellow at American Institutes for Research
What’s the role of private lending going to be?
Which regulations are the ones that are going to survive and which ones need to go away? What’s going to happen to gainful employment? What’s going to happen to borrower defense? Those two to me, they’re ripe for revisiting.
What are we going to do about endowments and the incredible concentration of wealth in the hands of so few universities?
What do we do when we have high failure rates in open-admission schools? What’s the role of risk-adjusted metrics? What is the role of information in advising students better?
Madeleine Kunin, former governor of Vermont and deputy secretary of education under President Clinton
Do you support public education and the mission of the department? Title IX and Title IV?
With her financial support of conservative candidates, can she be a nonpartisan secretary? Or, more bluntly, does she believe the department should be eliminated?
What will she do to reduce high student loan debt?
Margaret Spellings, president, University of North Carolina System; former education secretary under President George W. Bush
As an education reformer, there is much Ms. DeVos can do to encourage accountability and high standards, but achieving those goals will depend on winning the support of stakeholders across the country. I think she can build that support because her focus as a reformer is squarely on students -- what works best for them, what gives them the best shot at a quality education and the opportunity to excel.
Ann Larson, organizer, the Debt Collective
Most for-profit schools would not survive without federal student aid. Do you believe that for-profit colleges should continue to receive federal funding?
Student debt cancellation would immediately improve nearly 40 million Americans’ lives and help the economy. Under what conditions would you support a jubilee of student loans?
The Debt Collective organizes with many people of faith who are united in their opposition to usury. As secretary of education, at what point would you consider education debt to be usurious?
You have supported using public funds to create private religious education. Would you support taxpayer-funded schools run by Muslims? If not, how would you decide which religious views can be supported with taxpayer dollars?
Beth Akers, senior fellow, the Manhattan Institute
Since DeVos doesn’t have a real track record on higher education, it’s going to be tough to get a true sense of what we can expect from her down the road. But given her staunch support of choice in K-12 education, a notion based firmly in market-oriented thinking, I’d expect her to be sympathetic to both eliminating gainful-employment regulations and reintroducing private lenders into the federal student loan program, both of which are bad ideas. I’d like to see the committee press her on these issues, which would give us a good sense of whether she’s done her homework on higher education.
Gail Mellow, president, LaGuardia Community College
If asked to define a typical college student, most Americans describe a recent high school graduate, going to a four-year college and living on the college campus. However, this represents only a portion of our nation’s college students. Nearly half of all U.S. college students are enrolled at a community college. And community college students are disproportionately among the neediest disadvantaged groups -- living in poverty, minorities, new immigrants. Paradoxically, community colleges serve the most academically and financially challenged students in our nation, while private research colleges receive five times more funding per student.
Given this disparity, does Ms. DeVos think community colleges are in danger of becoming separate and unequal institutions of higher education? How would she address the relative lack of funding for community colleges, as compared with other sectors of higher education?
Rohit Chopra, former student loans ombudsman, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
As secretary, you’ll be the CEO of a trillion-dollar student loan bank that impacts more than 40 million borrowers, with more assets than Goldman Sachs. Oddly, the bank hands out contracts to big student loan companies to collect from borrowers, while also policing them to make sure borrowers aren’t getting cheated. Do you think it is realistic that the nation’s top education official can have the expertise to play this role effectively? Or should these roles be transferred to other agencies, like the Department of the Treasury, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission? In other words, is it time to break up the trillion-dollar bank?
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor, California Community Colleges
During the presidential election, large numbers of voters made it known that they were not connected to the economy and feel they are losing ground in the era of globalization. America’s community colleges are the most powerful engines of social mobility in our nation, providing people from all backgrounds with the ability to prepare for meaningful and good-paying jobs. How can this administration and your department empower community colleges to do even more to prepare students for the jobs of today and tomorrow?
The California Community Colleges are the largest system of higher education in the country, and tens of thousands of our 2.1 million students participate in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. What will you and the Department of Education do to ensure that these students, some of whom have served our nation in the armed forces, will continue to pursue their educational goals and contribute to the communities in which they were raised?
President-elect Trump has made clear that he wants America to embark on projects that modernize our aging infrastructure, which will create job opportunities for a broad spectrum of skilled workers. Under your leadership, how will the department work with America’s community colleges to invest in the types of career technical education programs that will align with the infrastructure plans envisioned by the administration? The success of such a large-scale public infrastructure program will depend, in large part, on the ability of employers and colleges to achieve labor supply and demand equilibrium, which will require close coordination and support by the Departments of Education and Labor.
Throughout the nation, College Promise partnerships have brought communities, businesses, philanthropic organizations and education partners together to promote college-going cultures and make community college more affordable. From Tennessee to Long Beach, Calif., these partnerships have enabled communities to make powerful commitments to students and families who want to use public higher education as a way to improve their lives. What will the incoming administration do to continue the proliferation of these partnerships that are showing positive results?
Wick Sloane, instructor at Bunker Hill Community College and Inside Higher Ed contributor
What will you do to equalize need-based federal subsidies for college students? Federal subsidies to college students vary wildly. A federal Pell Grant for the lowest of the low-income students is a maximum of $5,775. All students at wealthy colleges such as Williams, Yale, Princeton and Harvard, by federal tax policy alone, receive subsidies of at least $30,000 per student, regardless of need. This is from tax-free endowments and tax-deductible donations that colleges are free to spend for sports sky boxes and indoor golf nets. How will you work with the Treasury and the IRS to remedy these inequities?
How quickly will you put in place a federal free and reduced-price lunch program for eligible low-income college students? If not, will you support Senator Warren’s proposal for an immediate General Accountability Office study on college hunger? As you know, the available data on hunger is alarming. Federal policy agrees that nutrition is essential for learning in K-12, and the federal government provides eligible students with free and reduced-price lunch and often breakfast. Yet these same students lose these meals when they continue on to higher education for a professional credential or a degree. The same students often lose a bus or a subway pass. Does this make sense to you?