What We Learned about Higher Education Priorities in a Trump Administration from the Betsy DeVos Hearing

January 19th, 2017
Jake Brymner, Regional Affairs Manager, Campaign for College Opportunity

By: Jake Brymner, Regional Affairs Manager, Campaign for College Opportunity

On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) began its confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, the philanthropist and charter school activist nominated by President-elect Trump to serve as Secretary of Education. As the transition of power takes place this week in Washington, many questions remain about the Trump administration’s approach to higher education. Given the lack of specific campaign proposals and DeVos’s focus on issues in K-12 schools, Tuesday’s hearing presented an opportunity to gain insight into how President-elect Trump and his cabinet will address post-secondary education. Below are top takeaways from the hearing:

• College could become one of many post-secondary options: DeVos made several statements in the hearing that seemed to question the importance of a college degree. DeVos said that “a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life,” and that she supports all post-secondary options, but emphasized trades, vocational schools, and community colleges.

• The Higher Education Act Reauthorization could happen in 2017: In her prepared remarks, DeVos said she “looks forward to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act to meet the needs of today’s college students.” The Higher Education Act Reauthorization (HEA) governs many aspects of federal policy on higher education and is typically reauthorized every few years for improvements to student federal aid assistance. Although there have been several attempts to reauthorize the HEA in recent years, it has not gone through a comprehensive overhaul since 2008. While revising the HEA was not considered a top priority for the Trump administration, it appears that a reauthorization could still be on the radar for 2017.

• Efforts to streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will continue: DeVos promised to continue efforts to streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) stating that it should be “no more difficult than absolutely necessary” and referenced Sen. Alexander’s previous proposals toward this effort. The FAFSA currently asks applicants over 100 questions, of which 1/3 relate to fewer than 1% of applicants according to the Gates Foundation.

• Student loan debt is still a concern: DeVos pointed to climbing levels of student debt as a concern, citing figures on the growth of the student debt nationally that were disputed by Sen. Franken. Both parties agreed that there’s been substantial increases since 2008 yet, their figures varied widely. DeVos cited a number close to a 1,000% increase while Franken’s figure neared more to 100%. Earlier in her remarks, DeVos stated that debt already held by borrowers should be addressed, but that U.S. taxpayers should not be liable for the bill, mildly suggesting the need to address the growing costs of higher education.

Though Tuesday’s hearing covered much ground, it did not address several major concerns in higher education. Pell Grants, the federal government’s major need-based student aid program, were mentioned only in passing and there was no discussion about how the Trump administration would treat college and universities deemed “sanctuary” campuses for “Dreamers,” the students currently able to pursue a higher education thanks to President Obama’s ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals’ immigration policy. Many questions about how new leadership in the White House and Department of Education will impact the federal higher education landscape still remain, but it’s unlikely these will be resolved before the Senate takes an expected vote on DeVos’ confirmation on January 31. However, students and other college access advocates can still bring attention to these issues. We can ensure that our incoming President, Secretary of Education and Congressional leaders have a student-centered dialogue by staying engaged and continuing to call on them to keep college affordable.

You can read more about the Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos at: Inside Higher Ed or EdSource.

Interested in adding your voice to our Coalition to Keep College Affordable? Learn more about our policy agenda here and sign a postcard to your Member of Congress urging them to #KeepCollegeAffordable!

This post has been updated to reflect the change in DeVos’ confirmation date from January 24th to January 31st.