Everything you need to know about Trump's pick for Education Secretary

Candidate has more experience with K-12 than higher ed

President-elect Donald Trump has selected Betsy DeVos to serve as education secretary, but little is known about how she plans to address higher education issues.  

DeVos served as chair of the Michigan Republican party from 1996 to 2000. She is a strong supporter of choice in the K-12 sphere and has long championed charter schools, vouchers, and other programs that offer alternatives to public education.

While conservative-leaning stakeholders in K-12 education have supported DeVos' appointment, even they say they aren't sure how she will approach higher education policy.  

"[I have] no idea where DeVos stands on early childhood or higher education issues, and the latter, especially, is gigantic," says Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.  

However, some political analysts say there are clues about DeVos' views on college among her track record of advocacy in the K-12 sector and her political affiliation.

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, says DeVos has a history of promoting better outcomes for low-income students.

"My assumption is that those themes of interest in opportunity and accountability would be a major interest of hers in higher education," he says, but does not know the specifics of how she would address issues such as financial aid and for-profit institutions. 

The decline of for-profit institutions, and more trends in higher ed this fall

University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings, a friend of DeVos, says she also isn't quite sure about DeVos' stance on higher education, but predicts that DeVos will focus on pathways to higher education and supporting community colleges.

Meanwhile, John M. Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan and current president of the Business Roundtable, says DeVos will likely be concerned with transparency and performance, workforce development, and supporting free speech on campuses.

Greater support for for-profit institutions could also be a hallmark of DeVos' leadership.

"It's not too big of a leap to assume that a Department of Education under her leadership or in a Trump administration would be far friendlier to the market forces being a bigger part of our higher education system," says Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos.

Donald E. Heller, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of California, San Francisco, also believes that DeVos will be a friend to for-profit institutions. In addition, he says, "She may push for federal funding that would make its way more toward private and religious institutions at the expense of public institutions," based on her work with faith-based organizations. 

The president-elect is quite familiar with the for-profit industry

DeVos' school choice advocacy could also offer insight into how she would address financial aid issues. Experts have noted that supporters of school choice tend to view the Pell Grant program as a model, as it is akin to providing vouchers for low-income students. But David Hecker, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, fears that access to Pell Grants will actually be restricted under DeVos' leadership.  

The future of Pell Grant funding

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate education committee, praised DeVos' selection. Alexander says the committee will move quickly to consider her nomination in January.

But U.S. Senator Patty Murray, the senior Democrat on the education committee, is skeptical about the next education secretary's ability to support students under a Trump presidency.

"President-elect Trump has made a number of troubling statements over the course of his campaign on a range of issues that a future secretary of education will be charged with implementing and enforcing—from education policy, to civil rights and equality of opportunity, to his personal views on sexual assault and harassment, and more," Murray said in a statement. "Right now students, parents, teachers and school leaders across the country are demanding to know how his secretary of education will ensure the safety and respect of all students, of all backgrounds, all across this country—and I will be focused throughout this process on how his nominee intends to do just that" (Berman, MarketWatch, 11/23; Kreighbaum, Inside Higher Ed, 11/28; Berrett, et al., Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/23). 

What higher ed should expect from a Trump administration


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