Republicans in the US Congress are likely to have a more significant role in higher education policy than Donald Trump’s education secretary through the cutting back of regulations governing universities, according to sector experts.
Mr Trump’s pick as education secretary, billionaire Republican fundraiser Betsy DeVos, is known for promoting school vouchers that allow parents to spend taxpayer funds in private schools.
But Lamar Alexander, Republican chair of the US Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a former University of Tennessee president and former education secretary, is seen as likely to take an enhanced role in higher education policy.
He has long made it a priority to roll back regulations introduced by the Obama administration – aimed at increasing institutions’ accountability on federal funding for students and monitoring graduates’ employment outcomes.
Terry Hartle, senior vice-president of the American Council on Education (ACE), the major coordinating body for universities and colleges, said that “under the Obama administration the federal regulation of universities and colleges increased exponentially”.
Mr Hartle cited regulations “to determine if institutions are financially responsible or not” and “to determine whether institutions are satisfactorily preparing students for employment”, which some university leaders argue put an expensive burden on institutions.
In an October speech, Mr Trump said that he would take steps to cut “the unnecessary costs of compliance with federal regulations so that colleges can pass on the savings to students in the form of lower tuition”.
Ms DeVos has “almost no track record we can see in higher education”, Mr Hartle said. He argued that her appointment suggests the Department of Education will mount “a significant legislative effort to create a voucher programme” for schools, which could mean a quiet spell on its higher education activity.
“Let me just say, speaking as a lobbyist for colleges and universities, that’s fine,” he added.
Some believe that figures from the for-profit higher education industry could be selected for posts beneath Ms DeVos in the department.
Amy Laitinen, director of higher education at thinktank New America, formerly a higher education adviser in the Obama White House and the Department of Education, said that given the lack of a developed Trump policy platform “more likely what’s going to happen in higher education, at least in the short term, is it will probably be driven by Congress”.
Ms Laitinen said that a 2015 “task force” report by university leaders criticising the scale of regulation – requested by four senators including Mr Alexander and for which ACE hosted and organised meetings – is “the foundation for what Senator Alexander…wants to do”.
Ms Laitinen said that while the paring back of some regulations was reasonable, “what I worry about is just a complete rollback of any sort of protections for students in terms of quality”.
The Trump transition team’s document, Making America Great Again, states: “A Trump administration…will make post-secondary options more affordable and accessible through technology enriched delivery models.”
Ms Laitinen said: “I think we’re going to see an administration and a Congress that are very open to new models of higher education, which in and of itself doesn’t worry me. What worries me is when it’s coupled with an absolute disregard for, and contempt for, regulation.”
She added: “We saw the rise, and are now starting to see the fall, of the for-profit industry…But I can see a whole new series of actors being emboldened and enriched by this at the expense of students.”