DeVos Confirmed as Secretary of Education
Since President Donald J. Trump was sworn in on January 20, the U.S. Senate has been largely focused on cabinet nominations. One of the more controversial nominees, Betsy DeVos, was confirmed as Secretary of Education on February 7, after Vice President Mike R. Pence cast a vote to break a 50–50 tie.
DeVos, a wealthy advocate for voucher programs and K–12 charter schools, presents a great deal of uncertainty for the higher education sector. She has little record in this area and made few related remarks during her confirmation process.
Other Actions Uncertain
There has also been little talk about the undersecretary of education, and some have questioned whether President Trump will even fill that position, which has traditionally served as an adviser to the secretary on higher education matters. Under the Obama administration, the politically appointed position of undersecretary was most recently held by Ted Mitchell.
On the campaign trail, President Trump said little on higher education until last fall, when he offered his ideas on how to make colleges more affordable. He floated a number of proposals, which included pressuring institutions with large endowments to spend more on students, and reshaping the way students repay federal loans. He also blamed federal regulations for creating burdens and costs.
Higher Education Task Force
In early February, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, Lynchburg, Va., announced that he will lead a President Obama–initiated task force on higher education. To date, little is known about the focus of this task force, but many expect that Falwell will take up concerns regarding regulatory burdens.
With more attention from Trump and lawmakers on Capitol Hill on regulations, NACUBO and other higher education associations are revisiting a 2015 report released by the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education—established in 2013, by a group of bipartisan senators to help inform efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.
The report was highly critical of the Department of Education’s oversight of colleges and universities and stated that “institutions find themselves enmeshed in a jungle of red tape, facing rules that are often confusing and difficult to comply with.” NACUBO provided input about the particular concerns of business officers.
Among the regulations addressed in the 144-page document are the financial responsibility standards, rules for return of Title IV funds when a student withdraws, voluminous consumer information requirements, and campus safety rules. Arguing that “smarter rules are needed,” the report laid out guiding principles for improving ED’s regulatory scheme.
ED Actions Prior to Presidential Transition
The Department of Education published several key resources in the final days of the Obama administration, which included details on the following:
Cash management. On January 11, the Department of Education (ED) updated its frequently asked questions on cash management. This resource provides information and operational guidance on the requirements of the cash management regulations. The updated Web page addresses questions about charges for books and supplies included within tuition and fees; interest earned on funds maintained in the institution’s Title IV depository account; and whether cash management regulations related to Title IV aid disbursements apply to deposits of Federal Work-Study payments to a student’s debit card, smart card, or similar instrument.
Campus sexual assault. The White House, in early January, issued a second report of the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, along with a guide on preventing and addressing campus sexual misconduct, for leaders at institutions of higher education. The 14-page document calls for administrators to focus on:
- Coordinated campus and community response initiatives.
- Prevention and education.
- Policy development and implementation.
- Reporting options, advocacy efforts, and support services.
- Climate surveys, performance measurement, and evaluation.
Protecting student aid data. In response to an increasing number of questions from institutions on the conditions under which federal student financial aid information may be used for program evaluation and research purposes, the Privacy Technical Assistance Center issued clarification on the conditions under which the data may be used. The 11-page guidance discusses different types and sources of data, as well as obligations under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Privacy Act.
Diversity and inclusion. While the share of Latino and African-American students earning high school diplomas has increased over time, bachelor’s degree attainment hasn’t kept up the pace, according to a study from the Department of Education released in December.
In the report, Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education, ED found that the gap is widening between college degree attainment among white students and students who identify as underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities.
The report outlines several examples of successful initiatives that colleges and universities have implemented to meet diversity and inclusion needs. These practices include an institutional commitment to promoting student body diversity and inclusion, diversity across all levels of a campus, outreach and recruitment of prospective students, support services for students, and inclusive campus climate practices.
The report is available on the Department of Education’s website.
GI Bill Education Benefits Change
In the final days of the 114th Congress, a veterans–related bill moved quickly through both the House and Senate. President Obama then signed into law the Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016, which addresses disability compensation, burial benefits, health care, homelessness issues, and—notable for business officers—educational assistance.
Decreased reporting fee. A key provision of the act cuts the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reporting fee—a per-veteran payment issued to schools to help cover GI Bill certifications. Rates have dropped from $9 to $6 per student, until Sept. 25, 2017. After, rates will rise to $7 per student, and will remain in effect until Sept. 25, 2026. This rate applies to the majority of veterans and dependents receiving GI Bill benefits, including the Post–9/11 GI Bill.
A higher-tier fee dates back to the Montgomery GI Bill, through which student veterans could request that the VA submit checks in their name to their higher education institution, to be held for the student. While seldom used today, the VA provides this higher reporting fee for the additional administrative work. Those rates have dropped from $13 to $12, a change that will be in effect until 2026.
Additional reporting. In addition to the decreased reporting fee, the new law requires institutions to submit to the VA—no later than one year after enactment—an annual report on the academic progress of students receiving Post–9/11 GI Bill benefits. The VA will include this information in its annual reports to Congress.
Compliance survey threshold. The threshold for compliance surveys has also changed. Now, the VA will need to conduct a compliance survey of institutions offering approved courses with at least 20 veterans or beneficiaries enrolled. Previously, the enrollment threshold was 300 veterans. The VA must survey each institution at least once every two years.
Change in definition. Finally, for academic terms beginning after July 1, 2017, the law specifies that a “covered individual” includes someone using education benefits transferred to them when the person transferring the benefits is a veteran who is within three years of separation from active duty or who is a member of the uniformed services. Under existing law, the VA would be required to disapprove courses when covered individuals are charged more than the in-state tuition rate at public schools.