Commentary

My ‘Dear Betsy’ Letter

February 09, 2017

The notion that President Trump’s secretary of education would reach out for advice to the president of Macalester College is preposterous, like imagining that the Patriots would rally from a 25-point deficit in the Super Bowl or that the president of the United States would gratuitously insult, say, Australia. Couldn’t happen. Still, it doesn’t hurt to dream, so here is the counsel I would offer to the newly confirmed secretary, Betsy DeVos. The letter is a first draft, so I have included some notes I have made to myself before completing a final version.

Dear Secretary DeVos:

I offer my congratulations and my best wishes for your success as you take on the challenging task of guiding federal oversight of all levels of education in America. You will, I know, want to work to ensure that our public system of K-through-12 education is stronger and more equitable than it is at present. You will also want to pay particular attention to the challenges facing under­resourced schools, and overwhelmed teachers, in districts across the country that serve chiefly minority populations. ["And ‘bear’ in mind the importance of protecting our children from gun violence?" Probably not a good idea.]

“The issue that poses the greatest threat to our country, and that I hope you will make the centerpiece of your agenda, is inequity.”
You will also want to think about the many challenges facing the country’s colleges and universities. [Explain difference between a college and a university? Maybe.] While I believe that our system of higher education remains the best in the world, we cannot ever take that preeminence for granted or ignore the many pressures we confront. Among the issues you inherit are the need to deal in a fair and thoughtful way with the enforcement of Title IX on college campuses; the need to preserve a federal student-loan program that helps mitigate the pressures of debt; and the responsibility to make sure that reasonable regulation does not grow into onerous and costly over­regulation. And this is just a start.

You must also be our advocate before an increasingly skeptical public, insisting that an educated citizenry is essential to the health of democracy and that bad things happen when education is devalued and demeaned. [Perhaps insert good example from recent history? Think.]

But the issue that poses the greatest threat to our country, and that I hope you will make the centerpiece of your agenda, is inequity. Higher education in the United States should be an engine of social mobility: Not only is this just, it is necessary to the health of our economy and our civic life. All evidence [define?] suggests that the system is not functioning as it should. The wealthy have better access to better colleges, both public and private, and more and more financial aid is being used to maximize tuition revenue rather than to provide support for those who are unable to pay.

The most consequential thing you could do as secretary, when it comes to postsecondary education, would be to lobby Congress to create exemptions to antitrust laws that would allow colleges to come together to discuss the fairness, rationality, and economic logic of current financial-aid practices. Since 1989, the Justice Department has interpreted antitrust laws as prohibiting institutions from having such discussions. The result has been an increasingly frenetic and expensive bidding war for the students who can afford to pay some meaningful portion of the full sticker price. In the short term, this is keeping many colleges afloat, but in the long term, and perhaps even the medium term, the practice of increasing discounting is unsustainable.

There is of course no guarantee that colleges, working together, would come up with a more rational and equitable system. What we do know is that, absent collaborative effort, the current system will not improve. We have little to lose and much to gain by relaxing antitrust restrictions that were never, in my view, intended to limit conversations of this kind.

“This is an opportunity for you to have a tangible impact on a matter of matter of consequence, to increase access among those who are currently being under-served.”
I am aware that Congress has granted a limited antitrust exemption to a small group of institutions that are "need blind" — that is, that purportedly admit students without regard for their ability to pay. But I would ask you to consider why it is that the majority of these colleges have student bodies that are disproportionately affluent? [Fact check: do billionaires consider millionaires "affluent"?] How "need blind" can one be when one has access to such information as the high school a student attends and the neighborhood in which a student lives? There is much here for you to ponder.

No secretary of education has pressed either Congress or the Justice Department on this important issue. This is an opportunity for you to have a tangible impact on a matter of consequence, to [make college great again? too obvious?] increase access among those who are currently being under­served.

I am grateful for your attention and look forward to our upcoming meeting to discuss the importance of the United States remaining the destination of choice for the best and brightest young people from around the world.

Best wishes,

Brian Rosenberg

President, Macalester College