In slightly less than half a year as Secretary of Education, thus far Betsy DeVos has promoted the interests of profit- and rent-seekers in higher education over students’ interests and over the public interest. Her most consequential acts affecting higher education has included removing consumer protections for current students borrowing money for college as well as former students of fraudulent for-profit colleges and universities.
In public, Secretary DeVos and the Department have made serious mistakes on a regular basis. DeVos has claimed that historically Black colleges and universities were founded for school choice and that professors try to indoctrinate students. The head of her civil-rights office stated (and then walked back the claim) that most campus rape allegations were false. DeVos’s Department was silent in the days after the IRS data retrieval tool was taken down during peak filing time for the federal form for financial aid. Perhaps in response to repeated criticism of her gaffes, DeVos has rarely made statements outside staged appearances. As centrist education consultant Andy Rotheram put it in May, that absence is “undermining her credibility and her agency’s role.”
The combination of her bureaucratic moves and both her and her aides’ public misspeaking tells me that she is never going to be an advocate for college students’ interests or the public interest in higher education. Like most Secretaries of Education, Secretary DeVos was appointed based on her experiences in elementary and secondary education. But her three immediate predecessors made substantial commitments to higher education policymaking. Whether or not one agreed with Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan, or John King, there is no doubt that they took higher education policy and arguments about the public purpose of higher education seriously.
What is likely to happen if her service continues to comprise long public silences punctuated by occasional public gaffes? First, the bureaucratic undercurrents are likely to undermine student protections both against predatory colleges and against discrimination. This is likely to include both reversals of regulatory protections and under enforcement by the department’s Office of Civil Rights.
Second, DeVos will likely be inactive or ineffective in Congress. To the extent that Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray continue their partnership on education policy in the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, any consensus they reach will be more important than the official views of the Department of Education. Budgeting for research and student aid will be determined by Congressional dynamics, not by initiatives of DeVos.
Third, she will undermine many programs that operate below the level of public awareness, and that rely on the good will and energy of civil servants working in the Department of Education. She may not directly attack them, but she does not appear to have the energy or will to figure out everything that her department does in higher education and what is necessary to keep programs operating.
Sherman Dorn is an historian of education at Arizona State University.