09.17.18

Senate and House Democrats Condemn DeVos for Her Latest Attempt to Put Predatory Corporations and Institutions Over Students

In comment letter, 32 Senate Democrats and 76 House Democrats urge DeVos to suspend sweeping rulemaking process that could undermine protections for students

 

Protections at stake include preventing unaccredited education providers from receiving taxpayer funds and ensuring students are able to receive substantive faculty instruction and interaction

 

Members: “By initiating a process to weaken rules, this Administration is clearly attempting to rewrite the HEA through regulation in a way that increases the opportunities for predatory institutions, particularly for-profit colleges, to exploit students”

 

Washington, D.C. – Led by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, 108 Members of Congress submitted a comment letter to Secretary DeVos urging the Department of Education (ED) to suspend the new, aggressive rulemaking process that could abandon key protections and give free rein to predatory institutions.

 

“Over the past 18 months, the Department’s regulatory actions have stripped students and taxpayers of protections from predatory institutions, revealing a fundamental unwillingness and hostility toward providing effective federal oversight,” wrote the Members of Congress. “Based on this track record, we are concerned that the forthcoming rulemaking will seek to undo or weaken regulatory safeguards in a way that is inconsistent with the HEA.  As you know, the responsibility for making substantive policy changes to the integrity of financial aid programs is and remains the responsibility of Congress. We therefore urge you to abandon this aggressive deregulatory agenda that overrides Congressional intent to protect students, taxpayers, and the integrity of the federal financial aid programs, and defer to Congress as it works to achieve a comprehensive reauthorization of the HEA.”

 

The Members of Congress cited concerns that the new rulemaking process will roll back protections for students, including ensuring students receive substantive interactions with faculty and preventing unaccredited education providers from receiving taxpayer subsidies. The Members also noted that the Department’s proposed regulatory agenda could seek to hold accreditors less accountable and lower accreditation standards for colleges, universities, and programs.

 

Secretary DeVos’ proposal to initiate a new rulemaking process is another step in the Trump Administration’s long pattern of putting for-profit colleges ahead of students. Just last month, Secretary DeVos laid out a proposal to rescind the “gainful employment” rule that holds predatory career training programs accountable when their students are unable to find jobs that allow them to pay back their loans.

 

The text of the comment letter is below and the PDF is HERE.

 

September 14, 2018

 

The Honorable Betsy DeVos

Secretary of Education

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, S.W.

Washington, D.C. 20202

 

Re: Docket ID ED-2018-OPE-0076

 

Dear Secretary DeVos:

 

We write to express concern with the U.S. Department of Education’s (“Department”) announcement of a negotiated rulemaking that seeks to broadly de-regulate the Federal Student Aid (FSA) programs authorized under the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA).  Over the past 18 months, the Department’s regulatory actions have stripped students and taxpayers of protections from predatory institutions, revealing a fundamental unwillingness and hostility toward providing effective federal oversight.  Based on this track record, we are concerned that the forthcoming rulemaking will seek to undo or weaken regulatory safeguards in a way that is inconsistent with the HEA.  As you know, the responsibility for making substantive policy changes to the integrity of financial aid programs is and remains the responsibility of Congress.  We therefore urge you to abandon this aggressive deregulatory agenda that overrides Congressional intent to protect students, taxpayers, and the integrity of the federal financial aid programs, and defer to Congress as it works to achieve a comprehensive reauthorization of the HEA.

 

Congress created the student aid program integrity triad in HEA to ensure a system of checks and balances to protect taxpayer dollars and student investment.  This triad—consisting of the Department, accreditors, and states—serves as the foundation for our nation’s higher education system and is designed to empower each entity with oversight authority.  The three actors collaborate to ensure a baseline degree of program and institutional quality from colleges and universities seeking access to federal student aid dollars.  Additionally, it is important to recognize that several longstanding HEA statutory provisions and accompanying regulations that govern eligibility for and disbursement of federal student aid were put in place in response to demonstrated incidents of waste, fraud, and abuse.

 

For example, in order to qualify for federal student aid, Congress required online instructors to provide “regular and substantive” interaction with students to distinguish distance education programs from correspondence “home study” programs that had limited faculty interaction and had exploited veterans after the Vietnam War.  Similarly, the Department established the regulatory definition of “credit hour” in response to an investigation by the Department’s Inspector General that found certain for-profit colleges were inflating the number of credits—and thereby the financial aid institutions could draw down—associated with various courses.[1]

 

We are also concerned that the Department will not use the rulemaking process to make targeted revisions to the HEA’s existing regulatory framework to more fully realize Congress’ intent to ensure program quality and protect students.  Recent public statements by high-ranking Department officials suggest the Department intends to abuse its rulemaking authority to roll back legislative protections that ensure the integrity of the student financial aid system and further jeopardize students’ opportunities to access a higher education system that promotes economic mobility.[2]  The Department’s actions to date call into question whether it will seek to weaken or eliminate program integrity in a manner that is inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the law.  For example, we are concerned with regulatory rollbacks that would:

 

  • Narrow the role of states in authorizing distance education programs;
  • Lower expectations for institutional accreditation standards, including enabling religious institutions to skirt accreditation requirements;
  • Abdicate the Department’s responsibility to hold accreditors proactively accountable for their role in ensuring institutional quality;
  • Significantly weaken the protection that students will receive “regular and substantive” interactions with their instructor;
  • Allow unproven and unaccredited education providers to proliferate with taxpayer subsidies of student aid;
  • Eliminate the “credit hour” rules and leaving the unit undefined; and
  • Allow taxpayer funds in the FSA programs to be used to discriminate or for religious activities.

 

By initiating a process to weaken rules, this Administration is clearly attempting to rewrite the HEA through regulation in a way that increases the opportunities for predatory institutions, particularly for-profit colleges, to exploit students.  This proposed negotiated rulemaking appears to be consistent with House Republican’s HEA reauthorization proposal that has, tellingly, failed to garner either bipartisan support or widespread support from the higher education community.  We, the signatories, agree that HEA is due for reauthorization.  However, any changes to the existing framework that will significantly alter the higher education landscape or increase costs to taxpayers are the charge of Congress, not the Department. 

 

The Department’s proposal to initiate a new rulemaking process on key protections designed to prevent students, especially low-income students and student veterans, from enrolling in low-quality educational programs is an unacceptable betrayal of its charge to promote student achievement.  Furthermore, this agenda signals that the Department intends to disregard its obligation to responsibly administer the FSA programs.  These actions demonstrate a significant overreach of Secretarial authority that contradicts the purpose of HEA.  In closing, we urge the Department to abandon this partisan regulatory agenda, honor its student-driven mission, and defer to Congress to update, strengthen, and reform the HEA.

 

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[1] Scott, W. “Letter to Dr. Sylvia Manning,” U.S. Department of Education, May 24, 2010. http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/aireports/x13j0003.pdf

[2] Kreighbaum, A. “DeVos to Announce New Push for Deregulation, Innovation.” Inside Higher Ed. July 30, 2018. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/07/30/trump-administration-official-describes-plan-rethink-higher-education-through