After serving multiple terms as chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education and the Workforce subcommittee on higher education, Representative Virginia Foxx is poised to assume leadership of the full committee in the next Congress. And the longtime critic of the Obama administration’s higher education policies says she and other Republicans are ready to reverse course on many of those policies.
Foxx said she has spoken with New York Representative Chris Collins, a Republican who is the congressional liaison for President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team. But Foxx otherwise has not yet communicated with the incoming administration or shared her preferences for an education secretary.
However, she holds a similar philosophy to Trump and his advisers, most notably on regulations issued by the Obama administration’s Education Department that target the for-profit college industry. Foxx said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed this week that Republicans will do everything they can to roll back those rules. The department wrote its regulations on gainful employment and borrower defense in response to what high-ranking administration officials and consumer advocates saw as fraud and abuse within an industry that experienced a boom after the Great Recession.
This fall the department finalized borrower-defense rules that establish a federal standard for students who were defrauded by an institution to have their student loans forgiven. And the department recently released new standards for teacher preparation programs that would provide greater accountability for colleges that produce K-12 instructors. Republican members of Congress are exploring the use of the Congressional Review Act, a little-used law that would allow them to abrogate recent executive branch regulations, to roll back those and a slate of other Obama administration regulations affecting labor, the environment and other policy areas.
With hopes for major college affordability legislation now likely dead after Trump’s victory, Foxx also addressed whether the federal government may play a role in funding more modest state and local free community college initiatives. A lightly edited version of the conversation follows.
Q. How will the approach of Republican leaders to higher ed change with an election that resulted unexpectedly in a GOP White House and Congress?
A. It would be two very different approaches depending on who was elected. Now that Mr. Trump is the president-elect, I think [we’ll approach things] quite differently than the way we might have if it had been Mrs. Clinton. But I think there are two names on the committee — Education and the Workforce — and I think we will early on in the committee have to spend some time on work force issues because of all of those onerous rules and regulations that were put in. There also some on the education side — the gainful employment rule, the state authorization rules, the credit-hour rule. So, there’s a lot of rules on both sides of the committee’s structure that I think we will need to deal with. Obviously, the big elephant in the room is the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Q. The Obama administration had a pretty clear regulatory agenda and college completion agenda. How will that change under Republican leadership?
A. I don’t know what their college completion agenda was. If there was something out there, I didn’t see that. I’ve always been very keen on the issue of completing college. I was an academic adviser when I was at Appalachian State University. I was a college president. I was always telling students, “You need some sort of statement to the world that shows you have some proficiencies.” And I always encouraged students to get minors. I always encouraged them to complete their work. We’re a credentialing society. We value credentials. And so I always emphasize to students that you need some documentation. College completion is obviously an important documentation. So that’s been something I’ve been keen about all my life. I did not see that with the Obama administration.
I saw a lot of interest in paying for people’s college whether they completed or not, but I never saw that push. Now, there is a general push toward completion that’s been going on for many years.
I’ve seen in the last five, six, seven years a shift from the emphasis on access to an emphasis on completion. I think there’s been a general recognition of that issue, that people are out there in limbo in many cases. They may have three years of college credits but no degree. And so, I do think there’s a general attitude [shift] toward that, but I never really saw an emphasis from the administration on saying, “Well, let’s figure out how we can give some leadership to this issue.” What people need is a certification that says, “I can do certain things.” That may or may not involve a degree.
I’m a big believer in stacking credentials so that you ultimately can get a degree because, again, I understand how we value degrees in this country. And I want people to feel positive about themselves, and in general getting a college degree is thought of in a very positive way. But people don’t need to always begin in a four-year school with the goal of getting a four-year degree. In the community college system, we felt really good if we could get a student in the door. Because often that was the biggest hurdle, particularly in older students. Get them in the door, treat them well, hold on to them as long as you could, and hopefully they’ll go through the process and they’ll ultimately get a degree. But you don’t scare them away by saying in six years, or four years, you’ll have a degree, because some people can’t think that far ahead. And they’re coming for a specific purpose. So help them achieve that purpose. Tell them if you do this you’ll have a lot more options in life.
So, I think that’s the way to go, is to begin with short-term goals and then build on those incrementally with the goal that the person gets whatever he or she needs. They may not need a four-year degree. They may need just a two-year degree or they may need a certificate that gets them credibility.
Q. A free college or debt-free college plan won’t happen under the Republicans, but could you see the federal government playing a part in a program to match state funding for free community college?
A. I will tell you frankly I have struggled with how to come up with any incentives to encourage students to go to college and for the states to do more. We don’t need to do that. The federal government doesn’t need to do that. It’s already being done. There are hundreds, thousands probably, of programs of early college going on all over the country right now.
It’s in the best interest of the states to do this. And that’s what should be done. In my own district, there are lots of these early-college programs where the high schools are encouraging the student to take college-level courses while they’re in high school. They’re working with the community college system. The credits are easily transferred to four year schools. People can get a college degree in this country without going into great debt.
It is not completely free, but a lot of it is at an extremely low cost. And a great deal of it is at a very high quality. So, I don’t really see us going there. There’s already a tremendous demand for Pell Grants for low-income students that is going to be very difficult to fill given the financial constraints that we have. I think the states need to wake up and say, “Look at the money we could save if we’re not having students duplicate the junior and senior years of high school in their freshman and sophomore years of college.” It’s to their benefit to do that, and they don’t need the federal government to pay for that. It’s not our role.
Q. You don’t see any role for the federal government in encouraging those efforts at the state and local level?
A. No. Why should we? We have a $20 trillion debt. Why should we go into debt to pay for what the states should be doing?
Have you read the Constitution lately? If you find the word “education” in there as a responsibility of the federal government, then I might change my mind. But I haven’t seen that word in there. It is not laid out for the Congress, the executive branch or the judicial branch to do it. And the 10th Amendment says if we didn’t spell it out for the federal government to do, then it’s up to the states and the individuals.
Q. The Trump campaign has talked about eliminating the Department of Education, although it’s unclear how serious that position was. Could you see the administration and Congress eliminating or significantly scaling back the department?
A. I definitely see the opportunity to see the department scaled back. We need to talk about those things. But we need to look at the functions of the Education Department and see are there things that can be done at the state and local level that are now being done at the federal level. I think you’re going to see that happening all across the board in this Congress, in the upcoming Congress, and in this administration. I’m very hopeful that we will see an emphasis put on that.
Q. Would you expect the functions of the department to be curtailed more on either the K-12 or higher ed side?
A. I don’t know — we’re going to have a lot of emphasis on oversight. And what I hope is that we get some really, really competent people going in the executive branch who will themselves come to us and say, “This is what we have discovered in the Department of Education.” Because we can do a certain amount of oversight, but there’s nothing like having somebody in the department who is examining what’s going on — hopefully setting up some studies to see how efficiently things are being done, working to root out waste, fraud and abuse.
We know already that there is that all across the board in the executive branch. I’m hoping they will put in some really, really good people to do that. We will want to use [the Government Accountability Office] and the inspector general a lot more than we have. I have advocated for a long time that we beef up the staff of the GAO. I really and truly believe that the GAO really does very good work.
Q. What approach will Republicans take to the higher ed regulations released by the department under the leadership of John King?
A. I think you’ll see us do everything we can to roll back those rules and regulations.
Q. What form do you think that will take? Would it involve denying funding for implementation of rules? Use of the Congressional Review Act?
A. I’m in a situation — I call it limbo — because I hope to be the chair [of the Education and the Workforce Committee] but I’m not the chair yet. I have no authority to ask staff to do anything on the committee. But what we need to do is to look at each one of those rules and see what can be done through executive order what will need legislation. What will be the appropriate approach, the most effective approach, the most expeditious approach to undoing those rules? That’s why I said our committee is going to be extremely busy. Because we have both all those labor rules and the education rules that we want to eliminate. How we go about doing that is something, I’m not sure of yet. But that’s going to be the first task — setting some priorities and saying, “OK, this can be done through executive order, this will take legislation, this will take the CRA.”
Q. Republicans’ mantra on Obamacare has been “Repeal and replace.” Could Republicans offer an alternative to the Obama administration borrower-defense rule?
A. Nobody wants students to be defrauded. But basically, the administration put these colleges out of business pretty arbitrarily, and then that put the students in a terrible position. There’s no evidence, we don’t have evidence that they were defrauded. The administration didn’t wait for that. They just went ahead and said, “We’re going to pay back your loans,” as I understand it. Obviously we don’t want students to be defrauded.
Q. Will students have to seek relief at the state level in those cases where they are defrauded?
A. I think that’s going to have to be handled on case-by-case basis with the various schools.
Q. Do you see any kind of federal standard replacing the administration’s borrower-defense rule for those students who are defrauded by their institutions?
A. We haven’t gotten that far into that issue. It’s one that’s troublesome to us in the way the administration handled it. What’s more troublesome to me is the fact that they put these student at such a disadvantage educationally. The administration, by forcing those schools to close precipitously, it left a lot of students out on the street literally in the middle of semesters, with a great difficulty transferring their credits. That could have been handled so differently by the administration. They could have put the schools on notice, they could have helped them stay in business until the students were transferred out into alternative situations. But there seems to be absolutely no concern for students — none, zero — just vindictiveness on the part of the administration for the for-profit schools. I’m appalled at what they did to the students involved in those cases.
Q. On the student unit record ban, is there any chance of a compromise to find opportunities for more federal data?
A. Not on a student unit record, but on ways to gather information that will be useful to us. Over and over and over again we had people [in hearings] tell us we have thousands of points of data and very little information. We need information. We don’t need a lot of data. And I think that we can look for ways to gather information that will be informative to policy makers without setting up a student unit record system.
People in this country are very sensitive to their privacy, and I am very sensitive to that. When I had that amendment passed several years ago, there was a heightened sense of that. It’s gotten even higher since Wikileaks and all that other stuff has occurred. We don’t want to give the federal government information. That’s a Democrat way of doing things.
That needs to be done at the state level more than it needs to be done here. They can figure out ways to get information they need.
Q. Should the president-elect do more to address the racist, homophobic and misogynist incidents happening across the country?
A. I didn’t watch the 60 Minutes [interview with Trump] did but I’ve seen clips of it on TV. The clips they’ve shown on TV have been that — that he’s spoken out against [violence]. He doesn’t believe in violence. He doesn’t believe in things that have been happening. And yet I don’t know a single Republican who does. Not one. We don’t believe in that kind of stuff. The people who are doing that aren’t speaking for us. So, I think he’s already done that. I think he’s already done it. Maybe he’ll do more of it. I don’t know, but he has done it. I don’t think the press ever really emphasizes that enough.
Q: That he has spoken out? He has made one. We’ll have to see if we hear more from him on the issue.
You all tend to get hung up on certain issues and want to stay with one. I think probably Mr. Trump is not like that. He probably says, “I’ve done that. I’ve said that. I’m moving on.”
There are other things for me to be talking about. I’m that way. I think a lot of us are like that: “Why do I need to keep repeating this? Did you not hear me the first time?”
The attitude hasn’t changed. We’ve got other things to talk about. It’s a new day.