Education Policy Update: This Was a Really Messed Up Summer

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We don’t blame you if you took the summer off from education-related news. Who wants to yell at the computer screen about education policy in the middle of a vacation. Well lucky for you, we eat, sleep, breathe and sneeze education, so we didn’t miss a beat, even if we were out soaking up sun and taking road trips like the rest of you.

Well, anyway, you kind of missed a lot while you were gone.

We’ll start you with the latest news, then we’ll dive into all the summer madness. So yeah, first and foremost, we welcome you back to school with a warning. If you are an aspiring college student, particularly one with an interest in online education, the US government is no longer in the business of protecting you from fraud.

In late August, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the hiring of a new director for her department’s Student Aid Enforcement Unit. The former dean at DeVry University, Julian Schmoke Jr. was appointed as the department’s new chief enforcement officer.

I know that doesn’t sound like a punchline, but it actually is.

Let’s rewind just for a moment. Last year, DeVry University agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission $100 million to resolve claims that the for-profit college had defrauded students with misleading claims about salary and job prospects. Shortly thereafter, DeVry agreed to a similar settlement with the Department of Education. These were significant higher education fraud cases, significant enough that the Obama administration even pointed to DeVry by name when it created a new enforcement unit in 2016.

That unit is, of course, the Student Aid Enforcement Unit . .  which the former dean at DeVry now heads.

So if you’re the kind of person that gets a little itchy about public officials and private conflicts of interest, you’re gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion.

Indeed, there would seem to be at least a proximal relationship between this appointment and the fact that, less than one week later, the Education Department announced that it had suspended its working relationship with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). DeVos argued that the CFPB had overstepped its boundaries by “expanding its oversight role to include the Department’s contracted federal loan servicers.”

Persis Yu, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s student loan borrower project does a pretty good job of interpreting this claim, explaining that “DeVos is prioritizing the interests of predatory for-profit schools, debt collectors, and troubled student loan services over the interests of student loan borrowers.”

Both Schmoke’s appointment and the suspension of this relationship set a new tenor for enforcement in the higher education sphere. After eight years spent making gradual gains in the fight against degree mills and predatory loan services, the Department of Education is unfurling a new era of deregulation and privatization in higher education.

But that’s just the latest news as you head back to school. Looking back, here’s the big stuff that you might have missed:

Massive Budget Cuts

In May, Donald Trump proposed $9.2 billion in cuts to the Department of Education. In July, House Republicans pushed back with a slightly less devastating proposal of $2.4 billion in cuts. That same month, Trump donated his second-quarter presidential paycheck to the Department. The sum of $100,000 would, of course, do absolutely nothing to offset the cuts either proposed by Trump or ultimately approved by House Republicans.

School Choice Rejected

Also in May, Trump called for $1 billion to encourage public school districts to stronger adopt school choice policies. This would include a particular focus on the expansion of private school voucher programs, alongside an additionally earmarked $250 million with which to make it happen. House Republicans declined to include these appropriations in their budget. They also compromised on Trump’s call for a bump to charter school funding. They called for a raise from $28 million to $370 million, but fell short of Trump’s call for $500 million.

In the end, the combination of budget cuts and the shifting of funding priorities left nobody particularly happy.

To learn more about the Trump/DeVos voucher crusade, check out Part III in our Education Gets Trumped series: School Choice Voucherism.

Student Debt Protections Unraveled

In June, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that she was extending the deadline for colleges to submit data demonstrating that their graduates are meeting “gainful employment” thresholds. The extension is designed to soften the effect of an Obama-era regulation aimed at identifying colleges and universities that are failing to live up to acceptable standards of quality. Along the same exact lines, the Department of Education indicated that it would be “pausing” an Obama-era program that would forgive student loans for those who have been defrauded by their college or universities. These moves signal an aggressive rollback of instruments used by the previous administration to reduce fraud, improve higher education outcomes, and stem the swelling tide of student loan debts.

By the way, remember how we were talking about conflicts of interest just a few minutes ago? You might like to know that, as head of the Student Aid Enforcement Unit, Schmoke oversees the status of all applications for students seeking to have their loans forgiven on account of University fraud. Politico notes that 1,872 former DeVry students are among those who have submitted “borrower defense to repayment” applications.

Click here to learn more about Trump's War on College Kids.

Colleges Lead Charge Against Confederacy

The protests and clashes that led to civil unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the death of peace activist Heather Heyer, on August 12th, ostensibly centered around the University of Virginia and the state’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the campus grounds. The decision ultimately placed Charlottesville and the campus community in the crosshairs of a violent and resurgent neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and KKK movements.

When these hate groups descended on Charlottesville in August, the campus defended itself with the assistance of numerous activist groups. While the event marked a tragic new level of visibility for America’s hate movement, it also produced a sense of solidarity and determination for a number of southern College campuses. As the events in Charlottesville underscored so clearly the hateful implications of countless Confederate relics, campuses all over the south followed UVA’s model. Duke University pulled down a Lee statue housed on its campus. University of Texas at Austin followed suit by removing two of its own confederate monuments. The president of the University of Texas, Greg Fenves, underscored the importance of this moment in history, particularly at the campus level, where knowledge and values are disseminated. He asserted that "Our duty also compels us to acknowledge that those parts of our history that run counter to the university's core values, the values of our state and the enduring values of our nation do not belong on pedestals in the heart of the Forty Acres.”

May all campuses through the United States take this same duty to heart.

Dream Killer

Few of the Trump administration’s decisions stand to impact college students as directly and devastatingly as the recent decision to pull the plug on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA is the subject of an executive order signed by President Obama in 2012 with the intent of protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation and providing them with opportunities to learn and work in the US. In order to qualify, an individual had to be under the age of thirty-one at the time of applying and under the age of sixteen at the time of his or her arrival here.

At the time of writing, roughly 800,000 young Americans—known as “DREAMers”—are beneficiaries of DACA. A total of 2.1 million undocumented immigrants could qualify for inclusion though. Among them, roughly 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate high school each year, and another 10,000 graduate college.

For many, if not most, of these young people, the United States is the only home they have ever known.

Trump’s announcement rescinding the DACA order—and his subsequent tweet indicating that Congress had 6 months to either legally codify DACA or let it wither on the vine—throws life into disarray for countless young Americans who have studied, worked, and excelled in the face of constant challenge.

The reaction among education leaders and universities has been fairly unanimous. Most have decried this as a cruel and unprovoked attack on the lives of students who have truly used their opportunities to make a better life here in the US.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, which represents nearly 1800 college and university presidents and executives, said in a statement that "taking action to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, even with a reported six month delay, will throw the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people and their families into turmoil. To our students, and all those who are potentially affected, be assured that the nation’s colleges and universities will actively, strongly and persistently urge Congress to swiftly approve legislation to enable you to maintain your current status.”

David Coleman, president of the College Board, echoed these sentiments, remarking that “Uprooting these young people would cause them irreparable harm. And what lesson would we teach the young Americans who will see their classmates ripped out of the fabric of their lives?”

We can’t say for certain how all of this will play out, but as of now, the White House has issued a memorandum indicating that all DACA recipients should begin making preparations to be returned to their countries of origin. So the idea that high school and college students might soon be rounded up and deported is actually a very real possibility.

Those are a few of the biggest stories this summer. For an in-depth look at these items and more, check out our Education Gets Trumped series.

There are also a ton of other stories we’re following, including the Department of Education’s recent decision to overhaul Title IX rules relating to sexual assault on campus and the ongoing budgetary battles that promise to play out over the course of the next two semesters. We’re following all of it so stick with us this school year. We’ll try to keep up with the changes together.

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