Early Signs of an Assault Pt. II

DeVos came to her job with a long history of advocacy in the K-12 sector, particularly in promoting charter schools and vouchers and other forms of “school choice.” During her stormy confirmation hearing, Senate Democrats focused almost all of their questions on her plans for K-12 education policy, and her most widely publicized gaffes – about grizzly bears and gun -free school zones, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school vouchers, and the conflict over measuring school growth vs. proficiency – were related to K-12.

But a question from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren foretold the trouble DeVos would bring to higher education policy. When the senator asked, “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?” the closest DeVos could get to answering the question was to declare she would “work diligently” and “commit to ensuring that institutions which receive federal funds are actually serving their students well.”

In retrospect, a more honest answer from DeVos would have been, “I will pull back what little protections against fraud and abuse taxpayers and college students have.”

Signs that DeVos would do more damage to college front than to K-12 emerged six months into her tenure when seasoned education journalists at Education Week noticed DeVos and her department were hard at work watering down two Obama-era regulations: One called “gainful employment” that held higher ed institutions, primarily technical and career colleges, accountable for their marketing claims to provide degree programs that actually led to jobs; and the other called “borrower defense” that provides a process for students to have their loans forgiven when they’ve been ripped off by college lenders and scam schools.

As the EdWeek reporters explain, DeVos had more leverage over higher education policy than K-12 because of the federal student loan program which provides more money to higher ed than the states provide. Also, revisions to federal K-12 laws that occurred toward the end of the Obama administration, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, reduced the education secretary’s influence on the K-12 sector and returned more authority to the states.

“The list of higher education actions under the new secretary is not pretty,” reported the Center for American Progress in July. “If the work done by DeVos and company in the first 144 days of her service all comes to fruition, then millions of borrowers will get worse customer service on loan servicing; loans will become less generous and grants will shrink; students will not be protected from low-value programs; and defrauded borrowers will not get relief.”

Among DeVos’s transgressions CAP noted are a withdrawal of Obama-era policy requirements to consider borrower-focused protections and customer service guarantees when selecting new college loan service providers, proposals to cut $143 billion from federal student college loans, and the restoration of large collection fees loan servicers can charge to borrowers.

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