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2017 July 21 - 08:18 am

Undoing Obama

Under DeVos, Education Department Rewriting Rules

Slowly but unmistakably, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are working to undo the higher education legacy forged by of former President Barack Obama.

Earlier this month, the education secretary shook the higher education community by suggesting that big changes are coming in the department’s aggressive enforcement of Title IX regulations regarding sexual assault on campus under Obama. After meeting with victims’ advocacy groups, organizations concerned with the rights of the accused, and campus representatives, DeVos cited unresolved legal questions on evidentiary standards for findings of sexual assault on campus and due process.

“There are some things that are working. There are many things that are not working well,” she said in a conference call with reporters. “We need to get this right.”

Guidance issued to campuses in 2011 on how to deal with student accusations of sexual assault prompted many colleges and universities to overhaul their procedures for investigating sexual assault. They were hailed by women’s rights group, which had complained that sexual assault allegations were too frequently swept under the rug. But the new rules also prompted a backlash, with some accusing the Obama administration of going too far and ignoring the rights of the accused.

Similarly, the Obama administration was accused of overreach when it cracked down on for-profit colleges, perhaps its signature achievement in the higher education realm. Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan led that regulatory effort. His successor has a different view.

The education secretary has put the brakes on two Obama-era regulations that were designed to protect student borrowers from predatory for-profit colleges, part of her promised “regulatory reset.”

First, the “gainful employment” standard, which sanctions programs at colleges and universities based on whether graduates are able to get a job and repay their student loans, is being delayed and the regulations on its implementation rewritten. It was to have gone into effect on July 1, but DeVos announced that she was reopening the “negotiated rulemaking” process that took several years of work and court fights the first time around.

Second, DeVos said the implementation of the “borrower defense to repayment” rule, which smooths the way for students to get their loans forgiven if they were defrauded, is also similarly being delayed. Its regulations will also be rewritten.

In a statement, DeVos said: “My first priority is to protect students. Fraud, especially fraud committed by a school, is simply unacceptable. Unfortunately, last year’s rulemaking effort missed an opportunity to get it right. The result is a muddled process that's unfair to students and schools, and puts taxpayers on the hook for significant costs. It’s time to take a step back and make sure these rules achieve their purpose: helping harmed students. It’s time for a regulatory reset. It is the department’s aim, and this administration’s commitment, to protect students from predatory practices while also providing clear, fair and balanced rules for colleges and universities to follow.”

The dual decisions were cheered by the for-profit education sector, which had bitterly complained that the Obama administration rules unfairly singled out the sector.

“We commend the Department for moving forward to begin conversations that will really protect students from academic fraud,” said Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities. “Our sector has consistently supported this premise. Unfortunately, the Obama Department of Education chose to use this basic concept as a vehicle to continue their ideological assault on our sector’s very existence. Now we can correct that with a clean borrower defense regulation that protects both students from academic fraud and their schools from ideological efforts geared to destroy postsecondary career education.”

But student advocates had a decidedly different point of view. The Institute for College Access & Success sharply criticized DeVos’ moves.

“(The) action by the Trump Administration will be cheered by for-profit colleges and Wall Street but is terrible news for students, taxpayers, and anyone concerned about rising student debt,” said Pauline Abernathy, the group’s executive vice-president. “This irresponsible action will rightly be challenged in court.

“Student, consumer, and veterans organizations, state attorneys general, and many others are on record opposing any delay or weakening of the borrower defense and gainful employment regulations because they protect both students and taxpayers from waste, fraud, and abuse. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that repealing the gainful employment regulation alone would cost taxpayers $1.3 billion over the next 10 years.”

“Halting and dismantling these common-sense safeguards will leave taxpayers holding the bag when schools commit fraud or close suddenly, make it easier for unscrupulous schools to defraud students and evade accountability, make it harder for defrauded students to get their loans discharged as provided under the law, and funnel taxpayer dollars to programs that consistently leave students buried in debt they cannot repay.”

DeVos’ actions prompted a lawsuit from Democratic attorneys general in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Filed in federal court in Washington, the lawsuit says DeVos violated rule-making laws when she announced her decision to delay the borrower defense to repayment rules.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who is leading the lawsuit against DeVos, said the regulations were “common-sense” measures meant to protect students.

“Since Day One of the Trump administration, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the administration have sided with for-profit schools over students,” Healey said to reporters. “For me and my colleagues, it’s simple: When students and families are cheated out of an education and taxpayers foot the bill, everybody loses.”

Left in the middle of the political and legal struggle are thousands of students who were bilked by failed for-profit colleges and anticipated having their student loans forgiven. Now, residing in a legal limbo, they are not so sure.

Danielle Ramos of Framingham, Mass., is one of thousands of students who expected that her federal loans would be forgiven by now. But the 30-year-old college student, who is now enrolled at Mass- Bay Community College, fears if her loans are not forgiven, she and her 4-year-old son will be forced to move back with her parents.

“I’m a single mom, so that’s really scary,” Ramos told the Associated Press. “It’s just a lot of uncertainty. I’m probably going to have to rely on family to help me, and it doesn’t feel fair.”

Ramos ran up $15,000 in debt to attend the American Career Institute, a chain of for-profit colleges that abruptly closed in 2013 after she received nine months of training as a medical assistant. Now enrolled at MassBay Community College and working toward a certificate in surgical technology, Ramos says she hasn’t heard any update on her debt cancellation and worries she’ll still have to pay it back.

“Because of the education I got at MassBay, I’m going to be able to get a good-paying job. But it’s not fair that I’m going to have to use that money to pay back something that didn’t deliver,” she said.

The Obama administration cracked down aggressively on for-profit colleges that enticed students to take on hefty loans with promises of job training they couldn’t keep. It pressured chains including Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute to close, and it approved at least $655 million in loan cancellations from those chains.

When Obama left office, 16,453 borrowers were waiting for loan cancellations that had already been approved, and more than 64,000 others had filed new applications, according to the AP. According to data released by the department, no new loan discharges have been approved from the pool of 64,000 pending applications since Trump took office.

DeVos has pledged to make good on the department’s commitment to discharge the loans. But the new rulemaking process has prompted a new round of criticism and raised questions about the department’s intend.

An Education Department spokeswoman said the 64,000 pending cases will be reviewed under current rules.

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