Little Legacy on Higher Ed -- Except Controversy

After a tumultuous four years, Betsy DeVos leaves her tenure as education secretary knowing much of what she did will be undone by the Biden administration.

January 11, 2021
 
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Former education secretary Betsy DeVos

What’s perhaps most telling about Betsy DeVos’s contentious tenure as education secretary, before her resignation last week, is the legacy she’ll leave behind for colleges.

There likely won’t be one, in a matter of months or at most a couple of years.

For DeVos, a longtime champion of the rights of parents to send students to the K-12 school of their choosing, higher education hasn’t been a focus during her time in office.

“Secretary DeVos had no interest in higher education and it was never a priority with her,” said Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government relations. “They never dealt with higher education unless they had to, or when they wanted to score political points.”

Her deeply ideological stances on what higher education issues she did deal with, including increasing the rights of people accused of sexual assault and harassment on campuses, garnered no bipartisan support.

The animus they created from her critics were apparent in the reaction to her resignation.

“Good riddance Betsy. You were the worst Education Secretary ever,” tweeted Elizabeth Warren, the progressive Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who often fought with DeVos over her policies favoring for-profit colleges.

Ultimately, much of what DeVos has done will be wiped away as soon as the incoming Biden administration, and the new Democratic majority in Congress, can do so.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to undo much of what DeVos is known for: using the department’s powers to take such steps as making more difficult for students who had been misled by for-profits about the value of their education to have their loans forgiven, and weakening the Obama administration’s attempts to hold for-profit institutions accountable if their students cannot get well-paying jobs upon graduation through a policy called gainful employment.

In other words, after four years of tumultuous debate, not much will have changed once the Biden administration acts.

In part, DeVos's record reflects the failings of the Trump administration to get more lasting bipartisan legislation through Congress, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“The personal animosity Democrats had towards DeVos made it harder to expand issues that could have had bipartisan support,” he said -- among them, expanding students' ability to use Pell Grants to get job training outside of going to college.

The end of DeVos’s tenure came rapidly and earlier than expected with her resignation Thursday night. She had been planning to leave office, but not until the end of the Trump administration on Jan. 20.

Three days earlier, she had written her goodbyes to congressional leaders, recollecting in a letter some of what she sees as her accomplishments in office. In line with what she described as her focus on students, she also highlighted such things as expanding the information available on the Education Department’s online College Scorecard, and making it easier for prospective college students to access information about financial aid in new ways, including an app.

DeVos also noted she had increased balance in colleges’ handing of sexual assault and harassment allegations to give more rights to the accused. The changes to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, including a new requirement to let the accused cross-examine accusers, benefits victims, she wrote, by preventing legal challenges that tie up cases.

But then came the unexpected and bloody storming of the U.S. Capitol instigated by Trump. “The impact of your rhetoric on the situation” was the “inflection point” on her decision to resign 12 days before her tenure would end, DeVos wrote in her resignation letter to Trump.

Politico reported Friday that DeVos saw no other recourse but to resign, after learning Trump could not be removed from office under the 25th Amendment, which allows the vice president and the cabinet to remove the president from office for being unfit, because Vice President Mike Pence does not support it.

An Education Department spokeswoman said on Friday that Deputy Secretary Mick Zais, a former superintendent of education in South Carolina, is serving as the acting secretary in the dwindling days of the administration.

To be sure, DeVos does leave with some supporters, particularly among conservatives.

“My friend Betsy was a champion of campus free speech, religious liberty and due process as secretary,” said Kay C. James, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, a group DeVos and her husband have supported financially.

“College campuses, which had become islands of intolerance and inquisition for a generation or more, were finally called to account, and students will be freer because of Betsy’s work on their behalf,” James said in a statement Friday.

Virginia Foxx, the top ranking Republican on the House education committee, also praised DeVos on Friday. "Her tireless efforts to provide families with greater educational freedom is rooted in one goal -- to ensure that every student, regardless of his or her background, is successful -- not just in the classroom but in years after," said Foxx, from North Carolina.

Without legislative accomplishments, Hess said, much of DeVos's “legacy will be judged on what she accomplished on the bully pulpit and executive action.”

Serving under a president popular among voters who did not attend college, her office was instrumental, Hess said, in Trump instructing agencies through an executive order to no longer require college degrees when possible.

Following Trump’s lead and middle-of-the-night tweets, she picked fights with the nation’s elite universities, particularly over social issues popular with conservatives.

In the past few months, the department launched a probe into the University of California, Los Angeles, for looking into allegations that a professor repeatedly used a racial slur against Black people in class. The department, according to a letter sent by Democrats on the House education committee, is looking into whether the university, by reviewing the white professor’s use of racial slurs, is “improperly and abusively target[ing]” the professor.

The department also is probing whether Princeton University, by acknowledging its role in systemic racism, has violated civil rights regulations.

Those actions drew praise from some quarters but anger from associations representing colleges and universities in Washington, D.C.

“The department under DeVos rarely worked with the colleges and universities in forming policies. In most cases, they were pretty hostile to consultation,” Hartle said. ”The unwillingness to consult means a lot of the things they did are going to be overturned.”

DeVos also angered colleges and universities when she ruled that students who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, as well as others who do not qualify for federal student aid, were not eligible for emergency grants Congress created in the CARES Act. The decision drew federal lawsuits from the California community colleges and the Washington State attorney general. Federal judges, in two of the record-setting lawsuits filed against the department during DeVos’s tenure, put on hold the ban on some students not being able to get aid, though they are in place in the rest of the nation.

The coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in December is silent on whether Dreamers and others are eligible for the new round of grants, leaving the question in limbo.

DeVos will also be remembered for siding with for-profit colleges in high-profile policy debates. She, for instance, repealed two Obama administration rules: gainful employment, which subjected schools to the loss of federal student aid dollars if graduates couldn’t repay loans, as well as borrower defense. Despite criticism and lawsuits from critics, Hess said DeVos’s stances reflected Republicans' concerns, like the cost of canceling the debt of defrauded students.

Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, noted that even progressives hail some of DeVos’s actions, including expanding the ability of prisoners to use Pell Grants.

But even innocuous changes to the College Scorecard have been controversial. DeVos did add information to the site to increase transparency, like allowing prospective students to see how much graduates of fields of studies make after college. But Kelchen said DeVos also removed information on the ability of those who graduated or dropped out of institutions to repay their student loans, which makes poor-performing colleges look better.

Others, like David Baime, the American Association of Community Colleges’ senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis, said there was good and bad. "For community colleges, distinct negatives were the hugely unpopular Title IX regulations, a slackening of for-profit industry oversight, and the problematic rollout of the CARES Act, including the exclusion of undocumented students from emergency student grants. But there were good things, too," for community colleges, he said.

The DeVos administration, for instance, clarified that a requirement in the Higher Education Act states that online education must include “regular and substantive interaction” between the instructor and students. Giving institutions more flexibility, a new rule DeVos announced in August says the standard would be met if it satisfies at least two of five conditions: providing direct instruction; assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework; providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.

In addition, Baime said, DeVos reduced how often programs need to get approval from accreditors to consider offering competency-based learning, in which students can pass courses based on showing knowledge of a subject instead of based on completing a certain number of hours of coursework.

In an op-ed submitted to Inside Higher Ed but never published, Scott Stump, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for career, technical and adult education, also said that DeVos had "pushed back on the one-size-fits-all education approach and championed multiple pathways to ensure learners of all ages can pursue a personalized and useful education that leads to successful careers and meaningful lives."

He pointed, for instance, to DeVos launching a new pilot program to allow institutions to let more students do work-study jobs with the private sector off campus.

DeVos’s decision to resign in protest of Trump’s role in the insurrection at the Capitol did bring praise by even some of her critics. “The damage Betsy DeVos inflicted to students and student loan borrowers will likely be her most enduring legacy,” said Cody Hounanian, program director at Student Debt Crisis last Thursday. “However, today, we applaud her resignation and we call on other federal officials to condemn Donald Trump.”

But education advocates, for the most part, took Warren’s lead and said they are just glad to see her go.

“Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing was the first indication that she was unfit to serve as secretary of education, and unfortunately, the last four years have proven that theory right,” said Tamara Hiler, education policy director for the centrist group Third Way. “As Senator Warren noted last night, Secretary DeVos will likely be remembered as one of the worst secretaries of education we’ve ever had for her clear devotion to ideology and special interests over the students she was appointed to serve.”

Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education policy for the progressive Center for American Progress, said, “DeVos’s legacy on higher education is one of sometimes subtle, many times outright cruelty and disdain for students and borrowers that has set students up for more harm when they are at their most vulnerable in the current economic crisis.”

Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy with the left-of-center think tank New America, echoed those criticisms and summed up:

“Most of the higher education community won't be sorry to see her go,” she said.

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