The limits of the education secretary's power

DeVos may bolster support for religious colleges, for-profit colleges

After a highly contentious and drawn out confirmation process, Betsy DeVos is officially our nation's education secretary. 

But that doesn't mean she's all-powerful. The education secretary must gain support from other government officials for many actions.

Writing for Vox, Libby Nelson lists the areas where DeVos would like to see change—and the extent to which DeVos will be able to realize her agenda.

Sexual assault policy

In 2011, the Obama administration directed colleges to use a lower "standard of proof" to hold students responsible for sexual assault. Many argued that colleges were overstepping their bounds, Nelson writes. She predicts DeVos may attempt to reverse the Obama administration's guidance and give more weight to the rights of students accused of sexual assault.

"The Education Department could issue new guidance calling for a higher standard of proof, such as 'clear and convincing evidence,'" writes Nelson. 

3 agenda items to discuss at your next sexual assault task force meeting

Gainful employment and similar rules

DeVos supports the involvement of private companies in public education, Nelson writes, adding that the Education Department does have a fair amount of direct authority over colleges and universities.

Nelson predicts that DeVos may try to loosen rules related to for-profit colleges put in place by the Obama administration. Potential targets include the gainful employment rule, which also applies to nonprofit institutions. According to Nelson, "DeVos could delay those regulations or, if Congress blocks them altogether, decline to replace them."

Transgender student rights

DeVos has committed to providing "safe, supportive environments" for students. But Nelson argues that because DeVos is a conservative secretary with a family history of donating money to anti-LGBTQ groups, her support for these students remains in question.

If she wanted to, Nelson writes, DeVos could "walk back protections for LGBTQ students and take the spotlight off colleges that seek to discriminate against them for religious reasons."

Such protections could include the Obama administration's guidance that schools allow students to use whichever facilities they choose. According to Nelson, DeVos could potentially reverse that guidance. 

How you can bring gender-neutral restrooms to your campus

Religious colleges

While DeVos has made it clear she supports vouchers for religious schools, it could be difficult for her to enact concrete changes in K-12 schools. But Nelson argues that DeVos' authority as it pertains to religious colleges could enable her to make policy changes at the higher education level.

"The Education Department has more power over religious schooling in higher education, not K-12, because religious colleges where students get Pell Grants and federal loans fall under the department's oversight," Nelson explains.

For example, DeVos could lead the Education Department to conduct more extensive investigations into religious discrimination cases at secular schools (Nelson, Vox, 2/10).

What community colleges can expect over the next four years

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