What the Midterm Elections Mean for Higher Ed

Was it a wave? Maybe not. But for Democrats, it was a win.

They weathered disappointments in some high-profile races that had appeared winnable on Tuesday night, and they lost three U.S. Senate seats in the face of a challenging map. But they seized control of the U.S. House of Representatives, tipping at least 26 seats to emerge with a clear majority. In doing so, they earned the opportunity to step up oversight of the polarizing presidency of Donald J. Trump.

That oversight could extend to higher-education policy through immediate scrutiny of what the Education Department is doing under its secretary, Betsy DeVos.

DeVos has remained a lightning rod since her nomination, in 2016, but her impact on higher education thus far is spotty. She has moved to undo several Obama-era regulations meant to hold colleges accountable for the federal-loan debt of their students, and has begun writing new regulations on how colleges handle cases of sexual misconduct under Title IX, the federal law meant to ensure gender equity on campuses. In January she will start the process of rewriting a host of regulations that deal with accreditation, among other things.

But the regulatory rollbacks have been waylaid in the courts. And the department, understaffed after heavy attrition, has not laid out an aggressive agenda. Now, Democrats in the House could further complicate the agency’s efforts. For example, they could threaten to curtail the department’s actions with budget language intended to eliminate the money for regulatory efforts they oppose.

More likely, the House’s Committee on Education and the Workforce could schedule a number of oversight hearings to press department officials on potential conflicts of interest and defend the Obama-era regulations that DeVos has put in the cross hairs. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, a former civil-rights lawyer, appears in line to become the committee’s chairman. DeVos, meanwhile, has tried — and failed — to trim the budget of the department’s Office for Civil Rights. That could be an early point of contention.

Will the Republicans’ loss of the House alter the state of play in the Senate? Senate Democrats, like Patty Murray of Washington, have issued a torrent of criticism against the secretary, but that effort has been diminished because the minority party does not control the agenda of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Murray will now have allies with agenda-setting power in the House, where Democrats have released a broad blueprint for a new higher-education law (and could very likely pass a favorable bill on the floor, since they will need only a bare majority to approve legislation).

But the prospect that the new Congress will consider a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act remains remote. The Senate HELP committee would first have to craft and pass its own bill. In the past, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, has managed to bring bipartisan legislation through that process. But tensions between Alexander and Murray have, so far, prevented any sort of progress.

Besides, Democrats may not want DeVos’s department in charge of writing any new regulations required under a reauthorized Higher Education Act. They may feel that their odds of retaking the Senate and the White House in 2020 would put them in a better place to control the process. Expect things to stay stuck in the mud.

To continue reading: https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-the-Midterm-Elections/245023?cid=gn&utm_source=gn&utm_medium=en&elqTrackId=e796e86f55e842cf80fe8566f8fbe052&elq=e4fef9d322694fdab2ba23186d84d109&elqaid=21319&elqat=1&elqCampaignId=10164