No one seems to know much about how Betsy DeVos - President Elect Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education - is likely to approach her responsibilities to higher education. As the Chronicle article points out, this lack of a track record in higher education, and sometimes even in any area of education, is not unusual among Secretaries of Education.
Some are speculating that Ms. DeVos's views on charter schools and K-12 privatization will translate into a Department that will look more favorably upon the for-profit sector. From this inference, they go on to reason that she will roll back president Obama's largely successful initiatives to curtail the growth of for-profits and shift enrollments into the public sector.
We see another possibility.
A Secretary DeVos could instead make changes that some experts have been calling for in the interest of fairness. By exploiting the growing latitude of departmental rule making, DeVos could lead an effort to revise the metrics of public accountability and apply them equally to all three sectors of higher education. While this change would be viewed as the nuclear option for some the public and independent sectors, it could bring everyone to the table to work out more sound standards and metrics appropriate to the Department's role. This is a criticism of the Department and not a criticism or defense of any sector. Departmental rule making has become so suffused with ideology deriving from both sides of the aisle that its architecture reminds one of the contortions seen in Gerrymandered political districts. As the methodologists and measurement scientists at InterEd will tell you, the current Gainful Employment conceptual framework and metrics are bad science.
This meeting of the minds will not be easy. The public and independent sectors are unaccustomed to being held accountable for impact, and enrollments could be affected in the independent sector if the metrics are bad. For example, tuition and fees for a bachelor's degree in elementary education start at $30-40K per year and go up from there at faith-based independent colleges. Applying current Gainful Employment rules to Education and many other degrees linked to professions that have low pay scales and high education requirements would force dramatic reductions in tuition or closing hundreds if not thousands of degree programs across the country. This kind of risk exists to a lesser extent at the more expensive public colleges.
Why not take a more intelligent approach to Gainful Employment, one that is sector blind but recognizes the material differences across inputs, goals, and impact?
In defending a move like this, DeVos might argue, first, that it represents an approach that is more equal under the law and, second, that the changes might enliven the market while exerting a helpful downward pressure on tuition.
We see one other benefit to forcing the development of better criteria in the public's interest. In applying Gainful Employment as it has to the for-profit sector, the Department has opened the door for federal determination of program winners and losers.
Today, only one sector of higher education is prevented from offering degrees that may be personally enriching but do not lead directly to jobs that pay what the Department has determined to be acceptable. What about tomorrow? Can Congress and the Executive Branch be counted upon to exercise restraint against forces that would broaden the application of this regulation? Looking thorough the lens of whichever party would be in control, I can think of programs for which federal support would not be a priority.
Implicitly, the Department has determined that a for-profit university should be barred from offering degrees in photography, fine arts, music, or any of a number of degrees that prepare students for professions in which jobs and entry-level pay is low and variable. How about tomorrow? Upon taking a long and principled look at the Department's treatment of the for-profit sector, a few leaders in the public and independent sectors objected to what they saw. Most, however, were disinterested or saw these sector-specific controls as just deserts, which they were for some schools.
Negotiating the accountability regulations so that they are acceptable to all sectors seems to us like as permanent a solution as you get in Washington these days. The current environment in which rules and interpretations play out according to the political party in control seems to us like kicking the can down the road.
What could it hurt to negotiate revised Gainful Employment rules?