For leadership in higher education, don’t look to Washington

Betsy DeVos. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the US Secretary of Education, despite having no background in that field, it was unclear what, if any, plans she had for higher education. While that made those of us working in and around higher education uneasy, it also provided a potential opportunity for DeVos and the Department of Education to make improvements to higher education and build on some of the policies and protections the previous administration had put into place. Many higher education advocates were cautiously optimistic.

We should not have been. In eight short months as Education Secretary, DeVos has begun to dismantle critical protections for students, borrowers, and women.

Last month, the Department of Education scrapped protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses. A 2011 Dear Colleague letter published under the Obama administration had provided guidance on how colleges should approach college sexual assault. DeVos has officially rescinded that guidance, instead instituting new guidelines that undermine protections advocates have sought for decades and prioritize the rights of the accused.

[Read more about the lasting impact of DeVos’s sexual assault policy from WE’s Sharmili Majmudar.]

DeVos has also been chipping away at programs that protect more than 44 million student loan borrowers — who hold $1.4 trillion in student debt — from fraud and abuse. The DeVos administration terminated the Education Department’s relationship with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which was established in 2011 after the mortgage crisis. The CFPB has ensured that students are not victims of fraudulent practices by settling cases with predatory lenders and for-profit colleges, but borrowers will no longer be able to rely on that oversight. The Education Department has also withdrawn the Borrower Defense Rule, which forgives the loans of borrowers whose schools have been shut down due to fraud.

We should be able to rely on the federal government to protect borrowers and college students. It’s clear we now have to put protections into place in our states and institutions.

While some states have already passed legislation that aligned with or surpassed the campus sexual assault guidance issued by the Obama administration, more states need to do so. The organization Know Your Title IX has put out a state playbook to help. Colleges and universities can also maintain the policies they had under the Obama-era guidance — and many say that they will. There may still be hope at the federal level — the Title IX Protection Act, introduced last week, would codify the Obama-era campus sexual assault regulations into law.

States are also introducing their own bills to protect borrowers from deceptive and predatory practices. Connecticut, which passed a borrower’s bill of rights in 2015, created a student loan ombudsman in the Connecticut Department of Banking and a financial literacy course for borrowers. Illinois’ governor just vetoed important legislation that would have required loan servicing firms to explain all repayment options available to students and tell them about forgiveness in the event of fraud. Women Employed is now working with the Illinois Attorney General and other advocates for students to override the governor’s veto. Other states have also pursued legal options to protect student borrowers.

It seems students will no longer get the guidance, protection, and leadership they need from the US Department of Education — we must ensure they are protected in our own individual states.

Author bio

Sarah Labadie is a senior policy associate at Women Employed, where she leads the organization’s efforts to develop and promote policies that help adult and low-income students access and succeed in college