Government

Landmark Law on Higher Education Should Be Scrapped, DeVos Suggests

June 21, 2017

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
Betsy DeVos: “We are advancing and growing as a people at an unbelievable rate. But the public policy that guides education has only inched along. Consider the Higher Education Act, or HEA. This 50-year-old law still governs and defines much of what you can — and cannot — do to educate the students you serve.”
For the second time in as many months, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has suggested that it’s time to scrap the legislation that governs federal higher-education policy and to start afresh. During a speech on Tuesday to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Ms. DeVos said the Higher Education Act of 1965 may have outlived its usefulness.

"We are advancing and growing as a people at an unbelievable rate. But the public policy that guides education has only inched along," Ms. DeVos told the audience of university leaders. "Consider the Higher Education Act, or HEA. This 50-year-old law still governs and defines much of what you can — and cannot — do to educate the students you serve."

"For me, and I suspect for most Americans, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to simply amend a 50-year-old law," she continued. "Adding to a half-century patchwork will not lead to meaningful reform. Real change is needed."

“Why would we reauthorize an act that is like 50 or 60 years old?”
Her remarks echoed what she said last month during an appearance at the ASU+GSV conference, in Salt Lake City. "Why would we reauthorize an act that is like 50 or 60 years old and has continued to be amended?" she said. "Why wouldn’t we start fresh and talk about what we need in this century and beyond for educating and helping our young people?"

The legislation has been reauthorized several times since it was first passed. Its most recent iteration was set to expire in 2013, but was extended to allow legislators more time to work on a new version.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chair of the Senate education committee, has told The Chronicle that reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is his top education priority during this Congress.

Clare McCann, a senior policy analyst at New America, a think tank in Washington, said Ms. DeVos’s continued suggestion of a replacement for the landmark law shows how the Trump administration misunderstands higher education.

“We can reimagine higher ed without starting from scratch on the entire concept of it.”
"There’s a lot of room in higher education for significant improvement, that needs overhaul, but the basics of the Higher Education Act are not likely going to change — and I’m not sure that they should," Ms. McCann said. "We can reimagine higher ed without starting from scratch on the entire concept of it."

If the Education Department were to seek a brand-new piece of governing legislation for federal higher-education policy, and get the requisite support from Congress, it would be a heavy — though not impossible — lift, said Dan Madzelan, vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education.

The point of reauthorizing the act is for legislators to have a starting point, said Mr. Madzelan, who previously worked in the department for more than 30 years. "You have knowledge of the existing programs: what is working, what can work better, and what should just be eliminated."

"Contrast that with not reauthorizing it and starting with something new," he said. "You would have to begin from a blank sheet of paper."

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