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DeVos Confirmed as Secretary of Education; Higher Education Agenda Largely Unknown

February 08, 2017


​Betsy DeVos, a wealthy Republican advocate and donor to K-12 charter schools and voucher programs, was confirmed by the Senate yesterday as the new secretary of education.

Two Republicans—Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—joined Democrats to tie the vote at 50-50. The historic tiebreaking vote was cast by Vice President Pence. It was the first time a vice president had been required to break a tie on a cabinet nomination.

The focus of DeVos’s record and potential agenda since her nomination in December has been on K-12 schools. She has no record in the higher education sector and said little about it during her confirmation hearing last month. But the consensus seems to be the one area where DeVos may act—with the support of congressional Republicans—is the federal regulation of colleges and universities.

“I think we’re going to be entering a period of uncertainty and change with respect to federal regulation of colleges and universities,” ACE’s Terry Hartle told Diverse: Issues In Higher Education in an interview yesterday. “What I don’t know is how quickly we will see those changes simply because the political appointees are not all in place at the Department of Education.”

Hartle added that the rocky rollout of the Trump administration’s travel ban on refugees would make the Education Department more circumspect about implementing any changes to streamline federal regulations.

The careful consideration of how to reshape the regulatory process for higher education was among the topics addressed at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing yesterday on the “Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Education.”

William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, discussed the findings of the Senate Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education as a witness at the hearing, stressing the need to reduce federal regulatory burden on colleges and universities while maintaining important protections for students, families and taxpayers. Kirwan served as co-chair of the task force, along with Vanderbilt University (TN) President Nicholas Zeppos.

In related news, the Obama administration’s rule on teacher preparation programs was one of two education-related regulations overturned yesterday by the House of Representatives. ACE had outlined a number of concerns with the rule throughout the rulemaking process and supported the action to overturn it. The bill now goes to the Senate. 

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