This past week the US Senate ratified the nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. I am not going to join in the already extensive comment on her capacity for the job, and even if I may not share some of her views, particularly on public morality, I believe that her critics are wrong in focusing more on her person than her ideas. Like it or not, she is probably the member of the president’s cabinet with the strongest sense of mission, consistent values and acquaintance with her province.
Over her career, DeVos has been involved in a number of educational causes, notably advocating for school choice and school vouchers. For the uninitiated, supporters of this cause defend the right of parents to choose their children’s school regardless of its location and to receive government financial aid to do so. This policy has favored the growth of private schools, which are financially supported by the state at the expense of traditional public schools, say critics. Experience shows that when there is a subsidized choice, the majority of parents pick private schools.
DeVos and her husband have also put their money where their ideas lie: Forbes ranks them among the 25 top families that have contributed the largest donations to healthcare, social initiatives and education in the United States, to the tune of $1.3 billion dollars.
Given DeVos’ libertarian ideology, what might we expect to see in higher education over the coming years?
-Firstly, we should sound a note of caution regarding the impact of reforms in education. Experience shows that regulatory changes in education only produce their full effect over many years. For example, the impact of modifications in university curriculums, governance or new degree programs can only be assessed in the context of what happens to students after graduation, say, at least three to five years. It would thus be illusory to expect that the impact any measures taken by this presidency will be felt during its mandate.
This long-term impact of educational reforms is frequently raised as a reason for bipartisan agreements on major policies, and in my opinion it would be highly recommendable for the new secretary of education to look for compromise and consensus on major issues.
-The political discourse over the coming years will be probably dominated by the mantra of deregulation within higher education, something that in principle might be beneficial, since it would give universities more freedom and flexibility to match the needs of the market. This fine tuning of university courses could produce more employable graduates at a time when many employers are criticizing higher education for not meeting their needs.
However, it is not clear whether deregulation at the federal level alone will prompt universities to become more flexible and market oriented. Many higher education institutions may have to rethink some traditional arrangements and uncontested schemes that prevent them from meeting the demands of their stakeholders and require time to market.
-Deregulation will also open the door to new education providers and a revival of for-profit institutions, which I prefer to call big education retailers. We may also see the upsurge of new tech-eds and education startups.
-If the US economy continues to expand, demand for higher education may remain steady and the operating costs at universities will continue to grow. This would most likely generate an increase in tuition fees, which unfortunately may not necessarily be tied to higher salaries after graduation.
-The bad news for public universities is that federal funding could shrink: Secretary DeVos has been depicted as an enemy of public education.  At the same time, given financial cuts at all levels over recent decades, most public universities have realized that in order to survive they need to diversify their sources of income.
-I wonder if Secretary DeVos will take any steps to deal with student debt, which is out of control. In a LinkedIn post published before the elections  I suggested that the new president should foster a grand pact for higher education to include all stakeholders, such as representatives of universities and governments at federal and state level, financial institutions, foundations, think tanks, corporations, and student representatives, as well as opinion makers in the sector. Such a pact could also see the creation of a commission, led by the secretary of education, made up of representatives of these stakeholders, who would be tasked with working out an educational funding model, as well as a solution to the current mountain of student debt.
The appeal of such a populist proposal for the new presidency is that it would probably appeal to public opinion. It is not hard to imagine the president seated round the table with major financiers and education stakeholders, demanding an implementable solution to the debt problem from them.
-One of the most damaging probable consequences of the policies that have so far been announced will be a sharp drop in the cross-border mobility of students, faculty and talent. There are no figures available yet, but insiders talk already about a significant percentage of foreign applicants to US universities switching their preferences toward Canada, Australia or Europe. Many companies, particularly in Silicon Valley, have criticized the recent travel and immigration bans, which they say dramatically reduces their access to talent.
-Another potentially worrying prospects are a reversal in diversity and inclusion programs at universities. However, since this is the province of state regulation and universities’ self governance, I hope that the much needed progress in these areas continues. US democracy has shown the world how an effective system of checks and balances works in the interest of society and prosperity, and I am confident it will continue to work in this way.
In sum, higher education is entering a period of challenges. Let’s hope that they turn into opportunities as well, because Aristotle’s maxim that the future of society depends of the education of its youth is as valid today as it ever was.