When all the smart people assumed that Hillary Clinton would be elected president, fashionable speculation in Washington held that the next secretary of education would be a "higher-ed person."
Ever since the job ascended to cabinet-level status in 1979, every education secretary has come from the world of K-12. Colleges were relegated to the office of the under secretary, a lesser concern. But when the "free college" debate rose to prominence during the 2016 campaign, many advocates dared to dream that a college president might be tapped to lead President Clinton’s ambitious college-affordability agenda.
Then Donald J. Trump happened. This week, the president-elect kept the K-12 streak alive by appointing Betsy DeVos, a wealthy Michigan philanthropist and longtime supporter of private K-12 school vouchers, to become the next secretary of education.
What does this mean for higher education? Nothing good, probably.
It’s hard to make inferences about higher-education policy from a K-12 school leader’s resume. Arne Duncan came to the job in 2008 as the reform-minded superintendent of the nation’s third-largest school district, in Chicago. Roderick R. Paige came to the job in 2001 as the reform-minded superintendent of the nation’s seventh-largest school district, in Houston. But they ended up taking very different positions on the role of private banks in making federal student loans.
DeVos is easier to read. Her lengthy résumé is overwhelmingly focused on promoting a private-market approach to education reform. While this has encompassed charter schools, which are public schools, it has mostly focused on private-school vouchers, or on shielding charters from government oversight. As The New York Times reported earlier this year, schoolchildren in Detroit are suffering the consequences.
That philosophy tracks neatly onto one of the first major decisions the next secretary of education will confront: whether to continue enforcing the Obama administration’s "gainful employment" regulations of for-profit colleges.
Congressional Republicans are chomping at the bit to roll back President Obama’s regulatory legacy and will use a statute called the Congressional Review Act to nullify most of the federal education rules put in place this year. Obama’s bid to hold college-based teacher-preparation programs accountable for preparing effective teachers will be wiped out, along with the department’s recent "borrower defense to repayment" regulations that allow students who attended fraudulent schools to have their loans forgiven.
But the real prize is gainful employment, a highly-politicized eight-year effort that survived court setbacks and numerous Congressional assaults during Obama’s two terms. Not coincidentally, the stock value of companies like DeVry Education Group, Capella Education, and Grand Canyon Education rose 14 percent the week of Trump’s victory. It’s hard to imagine a Republican education secretary who has consistently promoted private-sector education (unusually, most charter schools in her home state of Michigan are run by for-profit companies) and technology-based virtual schooling doing anything other than acquiesce to the evisceration of the gainful-employment rule.
Many Trump supporters have also called for scaling back the department’s Office for Civil Rights, which has ramped up federal oversight of campus efforts to combat sexual violence. This stance is a pure product of the culture wars. It’s hard to know how strong a boil those wars will come to, now that the far end of the mainstream right is freshly defined as neo-Nazis openly rallying in the Ronald Reagan building.
DeVos has not been an Ann Coulter-like agent of intolerance or a cultural provocateur. She is deeply connected to the major networks of Republican political finance and conservative activism. Her father helped create the influential "family values"-advocating Family Research Council and her brother founded the controversial private mercenary firm Blackwater. How those influences will shape her approach to protecting civil rights in education remains to be seen.
The Obama administration also made great strides in releasing more public information about student outcomes from colleges of all kinds, including traditional public and nonprofit institutions. At many colleges, students’ graduation rates, earning levels, and loan-repayment rates were revealed to be shockingly low. It would not be surprising to see a new secretary with priorities firmly in the K-12 realm succumb to quiet advice from the cabal of lobbyists at 1 Dupont Circle, who would rather see those embarrassing numbers go away.
DeVos, like all cabinet secretaries, will be constrained by the internal mechanics of the agency she inherits. The department disburses $100 billion in new student loans every year, and manages a vast database of aid applicants. She’ll have to make sure that system runs smoothly. If fraudulent colleges are given free rein to operate, their victims will still have the right to ask for loan forgiveness. She’ll have to decide, yes or no. There will still be sexual violence on campus, more so if civil-rights laws aren’t enforced. Like it or not, that, too, will be on her conscience.
Traditionally, cabinet secretaries are tasked with promoting administration policies through the bully pulpit. But I have a feeling President Trump won’t be willing to sit back and let his minions get much airtime. Which means that Betsy DeVos will end up spending many hours in her office on Maryland Avenue engaged with the nuts and bolts of our still mostly public system of education. If she’s a smart, reasonable person — and she may be — that’s an opportunity for real conversation about learning and opportunity. At this point, it’s hard to realistically hope for anything more.
Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation and is the author of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (Riverhead, 2015).