Government

For Student Advocates, a Worrying Week of Departures From Obama-Era Policy

June 15, 2017

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
The Trump administration’s stance toward higher education became clearer this week as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that two key rules would be delayed, and a news report revealed plans to limit the scope of the department’s civil-rights investigations.

An exchange in January between President Trump’s then-nominee to lead the Education Department, Betsy DeVos, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, caught national attention. The moment was fraught with tension, as Ms. Warren grilled the philanthropist on her credentials to be the nation’s top education officer during a tumultuous confirmation hearing.

"Do you support protecting federal tax dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse?" Ms. Warren asked.

“This is a giveaway to lousy schools at the expense of students.”

Ms. DeVos said that she would review the regulations enacted during the Obama administration designed to rein in predatory for-profit colleges to make sure they were having their intended effect.

"Swindlers and crooks," Ms. Warren said, "are out there doing back flips" over that answer.

This week, student and borrower advocates argue, they stuck the landing.

There were early signals of what higher-education policy under the Trump administration might look like. But the picture became clearer this week, with the department’s announcement that it would roll back two key regulations aimed at reining in abuses by for-profit colleges, and a news organization’s report about changes in how the Office for Civil Rights will investigate complaints.

Secretary DeVos announced on Wednesday the decision to delay and renegotiate the two regulations — the borrower "defense to repayment" rule and the gainful-employment rule — saying the previous administration had created a "muddled process that’s unfair to students and schools."

"These announcements, around the regulations, confirm that this administration is exactly who we thought they were," said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. In the immediate wake of President Trump’s election in November, Mr. Miller said, there were questions about how his administration might govern, and whether it would have a "populist" identity."Movements like the ones announced yesterday show there’s no populism in higher ed," he said. "This is a giveaway to lousy schools at the expense of students."

Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the department, told The Chronicle in an email that the department — and the administration, as a whole — aimed to "protect students from predatory practices while also providing clear, fair and balanced rules for colleges and universities to follow," by renegotiating the rules.

‘Terrible News’

Several student advocacy organizations quickly sounded the alarm on Wednesday following the announcement about rolling back rules meant to hold predatory for-profit colleges accountable — a step that many had already viewed as inevitable. "Today’s action by the Trump administration will be cheered by for-profit colleges and Wall Street but is terrible news for students, taxpayers, and anyone concerned about rising student debt," said Pauline Abernathy, executive vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success, in one of the many statements from advocacy groups that flooded in after the news broke.

"It doesn’t make sense," Tamara Hiler, senior policy adviser at Third Way, a nonpartisan think tank, said in an interview. "What we should be doing is making sure we’re protecting students from the schools that are clearly defrauding them or making them worse off than if they hadn’t gone to the institution in the first place."

The current borrower-defense and gainful-employment rule, put in place during the Obama administration, sought to hold colleges accountable and protect students from predatory and deceptive practices. Ms. Hill, in her email, said those rules would stand during the department’s new rule-making process. The earliest that the department might have renegotiated rules in place is July 1, 2019.

A day after the announcement of the pending rules changes, a second hit came.

ProPublica published a memo in which an official outlined how the department plans to scale back its requirements for investigating civil-rights complaints — another significant departure from Obama-era policy.

Under the Obama administration, a single complaint to the department’s Office for Civil Rights about a complex issue, such as sexual assault on a college campus, could trigger a broader investigation.

But going forward, "there is no mandate that any one type of complaint is automatically treated differently than any other type of complaint with respect to the scope of the investigation," Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary who leads that office, wrote in the memo, which is dated June 8.

“What we should be doing is making sure we're protecting students from the schools that are clearly defrauding them or making them worse off than if they hadn't gone to the institution in the first place.”

Ms. Hill, the department spokeswoman, told The Chronicle that the memo is "about ensuring every individual complainant gets the care and attention they deserve." The instructions were meant to "clear out the backlog" while giving adequate attention to every complaint, she said. Open federal investigations of sexual assault on college campuses have ballooned since the Obama administration heightened federal enforcement of Title IX in 2011.

"There is no longer an artificial requirement to collect several years of data when many complaints can be adequately addressed much more efficiently and quickly," Ms. Hill said.

But Catherine E. Lhamon, who led the civil-rights office under President Barack Obama, told ProPublica that the changes were "stunning" and "dangerous," and that she thought they could undermine the fundamental mission of the office.

Lawmakers also expressed concern over the changes described in the ProPublica report. "If true," Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said in a statement, "this would help clarify why Secretary DeVos is calling for major cuts to the Office for Civil Rights: because she simply doesn’t want it to do as much to protect students."

Signals of Values

John B. King, a former secretary of education under President Obama, said the Trump administration sent a "clear message" with its moves this week. "The administration is going to put the interest of predatory, bad actor higher-ed institutions above the interests of students and taxpayers," Mr. King, who is now president of the Education Trust, said in an interview. "And this continues a pattern that we’ve seen from the beginning of the administration."

Mr. King pointed to the Trump administration’s budget proposal as one clue. "Budgets really are a value statement, and what this budget says is that the administration does not value the role that education plays in the American dream," he said.

The president’s spending plan for the 2018 fiscal year features large cuts, particularly for education programs, and has faced sharp criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. The administration argues that the cuts are necessary to reduce bloat in the federal budget and to save American taxpayer dollars.

Further, the administration’s planned reduction in the Office for Civil Rights would be a step in the wrong direction, Mr. King said. The administration has said that it hopes to trim 40 employees from the office. "Reducing the resources that are available to the Office for Civil Rights means that it is going to get harder for that office to resolve complaints, investigate complaints, And address civil-rights violations that are taking place around the country," he said.

Mr. King said that he hopes the department will change its course, adding that there are a range of things it could do to better serve students, particularly low-income students and students of color — a priority of the Education Trust.

"But so far," he said, "the signals have been that that’s not their priority."

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.