House Education Committee Questions DeVos on PROSPER Act, Student Aid Issues, Alternative Pathways

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce for the first time since she took office on Tuesday, for a hearing during which committee Democrats pressed her for answers about the Department of Education's (ED) position on legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), oversight of for-profit colleges, the rollback and re-writing of several regulations, and more issues related to higher education and student aid.

The tense hearing, which lasted nearly four hours, focused on the policies and priorities of ED under DeVos's leadership. There was a clear partisan divide, as Republicans on the committee commended DeVos for her actions thus far in the face of scrutiny from some parties and expressed desire to work with her to move forward with passage of the PROSPER Act — the House Republicans' bill to reauthorize HEA — and Democrats criticized her for the rollback and replacement of several regulations, questioned her on what they perceive as a disregard for students' civil rights, and pushed her to defend plans to make cuts to federal student aid.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the committee, in her opening remarks applauded DeVos for her "willingness to take on this work in the face of the unprecedented vitriol you face."

"We look forward to hearing about what you've done so far to restore the Department's authority to its rightful place, and the creative ways you've found to help open doors for Americans looking for more opportunities in education," Foxx continued.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), ranking member of the committee, on the other hand, argued that since DeVos took office, ED has "relentlessly chipped away at civil rights protections, including civil rights protections in education," and lamented the fact that DeVos has not appeared before the committee until now. The committee previously scheduled a hearing with DeVos for this past December, but the hearing was postponed and rescheduled.

"Today is the first opportunity for members of this Committee — the committee vested with oversight jurisdiction over the Department of Education — to ask you about these issues," Scott said. "It is nearly a year and a half into your tenure at the Department. Such a delay of oversight of the Secretary of Education is unprecedented in recent history, and it comes at a time when the need for meaningful oversight is greater than ever."

With regard to higher education policy, Democrats on the committee repeatedly asked DeVos to defend support for the PROSPER Act, which contains an apparent $15 billion cut to federal student aid, according to a score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). A NASFAA analysis of the CBO score found that the bill would result in a net loss of $7.4 billion to student aid over the next 10 years.

DeVos said she had heard that number "opined" in discussions about the PROSPER Act, but that she didn't agree with it. Democrats and Republicans went back and forth throughout the hearing debating whether the $15 billion number was accurate, and whether when taking into account other factors, the bill would result in a net positive for student aid.

Republicans asked DeVos whether she supported certain pathways for higher education, such as apprenticeships. In her prepared opening remarks, DeVos said we "must put to rest the notion that a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success," and repeatedly throughout the hearing expressed her support for more "earn and learn" opportunities for students. She also said that she would support short-term Pell Grants for alternative pathways for higher education.

And while Democrats characterized DeVos's planned re-write of several higher education-related negotiations as a blow to student protections and institutional accountability, DeVos said the regulations "stifle innovation by limiting opportunities for students, and unnecessarily burdening agencies and institutions."

Democrats continued to press DeVos for answers on other recent controversial issues, such as ED's interpretation with regard to state oversight of student loan servicers, and the reported reshuffling and downsizing of a unit within ED tasked with investigating institutions for fraud and abuse.

On the issue of federal preemption for oversight of loan servicers, DeVos said that "as long as federal student aid is a federal program," the responsibility lies with the federal government to provide oversight. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), who asked DeVos whether the interpretation conflicted with her personal views on states' rights, said DeVos's answer was "concerning."

Democrats also questioned DeVos on the wind-down of the Perkins Loan program, and conflicts of interest within ED, specifically as they relate to the rewrite of the borrower defense and gainful employment regulations. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), specifically asked about the hiring of Robert Eitel, who serves as senior counselor to DeVos and previously worked for Bridgepoint Education, and whether his proximity to dealings with the forthcoming gainful employment rule would be a conflict of interest. DeVos repeatedly said all ED employees take their ethics agreements seriously, and that she was confident they were being honored.

In her closing remarks, Foxx circled back to the PROSPER Act and said she appreciated DeVos's commitment to "helping us modernize the higher education system." She also said committee Democrats "are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that we've produced a bill that saves both the taxpayer and the student significant money."

"The time for reform is passed," Foxx said. "And if you're on the side of the students — and jobs — one needs to support the PROSPER Act."


Publication Date: 5/23/2018

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