Government

DeVos Takes Center Stage: Highlights From Her Confirmation Hearing

January 18, 2017

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
Betsy DeVos appeared before the U.S. Senate's education committee on Tuesday as it considered her nomination to be secretary of education. Pressed to support precise positions, Ms. DeVos avoided specifics and instead promised to work with lawmakers toward common goals.
Elisabeth D. (Betsy) DeVos, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s pick for U.S. secretary of education, was on Capitol Hill Tuesday evening for nearly four hours of questions from members of the U.S. Senate’s education committee.

While several former nominees have breezed through the process with little contention, Democrats and Republicans began drawing battle lines over Ms. DeVos’s nomination weeks ago. Those conflicts were obvious at the hearing, where Democrats complained frequently over a five-minute limit for questions and the fact that the Office of Government Ethics had not finished a review of Ms. DeVos’s financial investments and possible conflicts of interest.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman, said most previous education secretaries had gone through a similar process and said those precedents would guide the current nomination.

“For too long a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life. The old and expensive brick-mortar-and-ivy model is not the only one that will lead to a prosperous future.”
But the real fight over the current nominee is due to her support of using public-school dollars for charter schools and vouchers for students to attend private schools. Such policies are usually opposed, in particular, by teachers unions, who charge that they undercut support for traditional public schools.

While Ms. DeVos is well-known nationally as a supporter of school choice, the hearing was the first opportunity for most to hear some of her positions on higher education. She has no professional experience in a school or college, and has said very little about the federal government’s role in regulating postsecondary education.

Some of her clearest answers came in response to questions from U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, who asked about her commitment to paring higher-education regulations broadly and simplifying the form students must complete for access to federal aid, called the Fafsa.

"I don’t think we should make it any more difficult than necessary" for students to complete the forms, she said.

But as senators from both parties pressed her to support precise positions, Ms. DeVos avoided specifics and instead promised to work with lawmakers toward common goals.

The committee could vote on sending her nomination to the full Senate for confirmation as soon as next week if the details of her federal ethics compliance are finalized, Mr. Alexander said.

Following are three higher-education issues on which committee members and Ms. DeVos had significant exchanges.

Student Debt

Rising amounts of student debt are, arguably, the topic that has driven the vast majority of higher-education policy discussion in recent years. Ms. DeVos raised this issue in her prepared remarks, saying: "Escalating tuition is pricing aspiring and talented students out of college. Others are burdened with debts that will take years — or even decades — to pay off."

She then appeared to criticize the Obama administration’s actions to forgive loans that students have accumulated while attending for-profit colleges that the Education Department says has defrauded them. "There is no magic wand to make the debt go away, but we do need to take action. It would be a mistake to shift that burden to struggling taxpayers without first addressing why tuition has gotten so high," she said in her opening statement.

The solution, Ms. DeVos suggested, is for more students to choose less-expensive forms of postsecondary education or pursue work as in a skilled trade.

"For too long a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life. The old and expensive brick-mortar-and-ivy model is not the only one that will lead to a prosperous future," she said.

"President-elect Trump and I agree we need to support all postsecondary avenues, including trade and vocational schools, and community colleges."

But when Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate and independent of Vermont, asked about supporting his proposal for tuition-free college, Ms. DeVos said only that it was "an interesting idea."

"Nothing in life is truly free," Ms. DeVos said.

Sen. Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, challenged Ms. DeVos’s grasp of the details of college debt, pointing out that total student-loan debt had more than doubled during the past eight years, rather than rising nearly 1,000 percent, as Ms. DeVos had said earlier in the hearing.

For-Profit Regulation

Ms. DeVos was in many ways even less specific about what she would do with the host of regulations that the Obama administration has enacted to rein in abuses by for-profit colleges.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, asked Ms. DeVos if she would, for example, hold colleges accountable under regulations that measure student earnings after graduating compared to the amount of loans they have — the Obama administration’s controversial "gainful-employment rule."

"Do you support protecting federal tax dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse?" asked Senator Warren, who questioned the nominee’s qualifications to run an agency that lends hundreds of millions of dollars to students every year.

Ms. DeVos answered only that she would review the rule to make sure it was achieving its intended goal.

"Swindlers and crooks are out there doing back flip" over that answer, Senator Warren said. "If confirmed, you will be the cop on the beat and if you can’t enforce the existing rules then you shouldn’t be secretary of education."

Title IX Enforcement

Some of the most charged questioning of the evening related to whether Ms. DeVos would protect sexual minorities on campuses and uphold the Obama administration’s guidance on how colleges should handle allegations of sexual assault.

Several Democrats charged that the nominee or her family members had directed donations to organizations, such as the Family Research Council, that oppose gay rights and support "conversion therapy," which seeks to change the sexual orientation of people who are gay.

"Do you still support conversion therapy?" Senator Franken asked.

"I’ve never believed in that," said Ms. DeVos.

Later, in response to questions from Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, she said: "I embrace equality and firmly believe in the intrinsic value of every individual" and supporting a safe environment for all students. "As a mom, I couldn’t stand the idea of my child being discriminated against for any reason."

Ms. DeVos was, however, less resolute when pressed about the specifics of enforcing guidance on sexual assault.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Democrat of Pennsylvania, asked Ms. DeVos if she would uphold the current administration’s 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter, which lays out a host of demands for campuses to crack down on sexual harassment and assault.

Ms. DeVos said there were "a lot of conflicting ideas" about how to enforce the rules under Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in education. "I look forward to working with you" to understand those conflicts and find resolutions, she said.

Senator Casey then asked: "You’re not going to give me a yes or no answer, are you?"

Ms. DeVos said only that "It would be premature for me to do that."

"Assault in any form is never OK," she added. "If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and the current situation," she said, in order to carry out the law as it was intended.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.

Correction (1/18/2017, 5:05 p.m.): This article initially misspelled the first name of the nominee for secretary of education. She is Elisabeth DeVos, not Elizabeth DeVos. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.