Trump administration to unravel HE quality safeguards

United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has ambitious plans for higher education in 2019, and detailed many of them this week in recommendations that for the first time articulate the Trump administration's views on how to steward billions of taxpayer dollars in federal student aid.

Some of the biggest changes would reduce federal oversight of higher education accreditation, the gate-keeping process designed to ensure that federal financial aid goes only to institutions that provide a quality education to their students.

The proposals would make it easier for new accrediting agencies to gain permission to operate, give those agencies more flexibility in approving colleges and programmes to receive financial aid, and allow colleges to make certain changes without an accreditor's permission.

Another change would remove a ban on colleges from receiving federal funds if they outsource more than half their programmes to non-accredited providers.

If the proposals are adopted in final regulations, the changes would undo many measures implemented during the eight years of the Obama administration. DeVos has said existing regulations are unnecessarily burdensome and do little to spur innovation in higher education, criticisms that also have been raised by conservatives in Congress.

"Higher education is due for a rethink," she said in remarks last month in a meeting in Washington with the American Council on Education, the umbrella association representing US colleges and universities.

‘Invitation to predatory actors’

But critics say the proposals offer an invitation for low-quality education providers and other predatory actors to take advantage of students.

"It’s making it very easy for non-accredited, unvetted institutional providers to access federal student aid money. It’s making it very easy to become an accreditor with no experience," said Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a non-profit think tank.

"All in all, the proposals are difficult to see as anything less than an all-out assault on higher education," said Clare McCann, deputy director of the New America Foundation, another non-profit think tank.

The Department, which published the proposed language on 7 January, announced plans last July to revisit the regulatory language. While largely unsurprising in content, the proposals cover a daunting range of subjects, McCann said, touching on more than a dozen issues. Distance education programmes, religious colleges and grants for students who plan to be classroom teachers are among those affected by the proposals.

McCann also suggested that the sheer volume of recommendations could make it easier for the Department's proposals to remain intact in final version.

The proposals must now go through a process called negotiated rulemaking, through which the Department seeks feedback from stakeholders on its proposals before issuing final language.

The first of three meetings of the negotiated rulemaking committee and three subcommittees, which are open to the public, begin this month and end in March.

Unless the committee reaches a consensus on how to change language, "the Department has the discretion to publish any rule it wants", McCann said.

Trump’s stamp on higher education

Trump’s stamp on higher education

If the Trump presidency's impact on U. higher education to date has hinged on immigration policy, a regulatory overhaul may be the administration's best chance at putting its stamp on US higher education in 2019. A divided Congress is unlikely to reach consensus on the long-overdue reauthorisation of the Higher Education Act before the 2020 elections.

The proposed rule changes, which came just four days after Democrats took over the House of Representatives, are not affected by the change in congressional leadership because the proposals are not new laws but interpretations on how to implement existing regulations.

Similarly, the federal government's partial shutdown has little impact on students who receive financial aid because that money has already been appropriated. The area of higher education most affected by the shutdown has been in research funding.

The shutdown, linked to Trump's vow to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico, also raises questions about the fate of the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which could have an impact on thousands of undocumented young immigrants who live in the United States and who attend or plan to pursue a college education.

The president suggested he might be willing to come to an agreement with Democrats on DACA if a compromise is reached.

Included among other topics related to the internationalisation of higher education that may emerge in 2019 are possible changes to student visa policy and greater scrutiny of partnerships between US institutions of higher education and Chinese counterparts based on concerns that they provide the Chinese government opportunities for intelligence-gathering on American campuses.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported that at least 10 American universities have moved to close their Confucius Institutes in the past year as political pressures have intensified.