WASHINGTON — A new task force that will reportedly advise the U.S. Department of Education on issues of higher education could be “very problematic” if it seeks to weaken federal regulations meant to protect students, Senate Democrats say in a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The letter asks DeVos to clarify how the task force — reportedly to be headed by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. — will advise the department on issues of higher education. It also raises questions about whether the Trump administration plans to scrap regulations in areas such as accreditation, recruitment of students and rules that give defrauded borrowers a way to discharge their loans.
“Many of the current laws and regulations in these areas have been put in place to protect students and taxpayers from abuse,” the letter states, “and it would be very problematic if a task force were formed to weaken or consider changes to any of these rules unless the goal was helping students and borrowers.”
The letter also stresses the need for the task force to be diverse.
“Unless the task force is comprised of members from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, including students and consumer advocates, we are concerned about conflicts of interests that may be created by taxpayer-subsidized entities writing the rules for their own access to federal dollars,” the letter states.
Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, also cited the need for more information about the task force.
“For decades, higher education policymaking has been informed by a multiplicity of perspectives and a new task force may very well continue this important tradition,” Cooper said in a statement to Diverse.
“But the specific role of a new task force must be purposeful and transparent, not undefined or imprecise,” Cooper’s statement said. “This task force must demonstrate an unwavering commitment to quality outcomes and making higher education accessible and affordable for all Americans.
“I, too, look forward to learning more about the role of this group.”
Diverse reached out to the Department of Education on Friday for comment but did not get a response. A spokesperson for Falwell said on Friday that Falwell was traveling and would not be available until this week.
The letter — signed by Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Shelton Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Margaret Wood Hassan of New Hampshire — comes as the Trump administration seeks to slash the amount of federal regulations as a means of freeing up business.
It also comes as the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently took testimony that addressed the benefits of eliminating burdensome regulations in higher education.
“There’s just no question that the regulatory burden and the reporting requirements add significant costs to our institutions,” William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland and co-chair of the Senate Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education, told U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chair of the House education committee. Foxx asked Kirwan if money and time could be better spent by colleges on students if there were fewer regulations.
Falwell has also suggested there is “overreaching regulation” in higher education.
The letter from the Senate Democrats goes in the opposite direction.
“Through the Higher Education Act and implementing regulations, policies have been enacted to protect the millions of Americans seeking opportunities for themselves and their families through postsecondary education and training,” the letter states. “Unfortunately, these policies have become all the more necessary after far too many institutions have not acted in the best interests of their students.”
The letter also raises questions about the wisdom of putting a university president whose institution is a major beneficiary of financial aid at the head of an advisory task force.
“Obtaining the input of college and university leaders is certainly one part of any comprehensive review of federal policy in higher education,” the letter states. “However, it is critical to guard against potential conflicts of interest where they exist.
“For example, last year Liberty University received $766 million in grants and loans under Title IV of the Higher Education Act, and was the third-largest recipient of federal student loans in the United States.
“Liberty University also has the largest enrollment of any non-profit institution in the country, having grown rapidly in recent years by recruiting a substantial number of students to their online programs.”
The letter notes that, if Falwell is appointed to the position, Falwell and his task force “may have a chance to make recommendations on the federal requirements that colleges and universities must meet in exchange for nearly $150 billion in federal student aid provided to their students each year.”
The senators ask DeVos to outline what steps she will take to ensure that the work of the task force is transparent. It seeks a response by March 9.
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