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Education and Treasury Secretaries Confirmed

February 21, 2017

The U.S. Senate has been largely focused on cabinet nominations since President Donald Trump was sworn in on January 20.

One of the more controversial nominees, Betsy DeVos, was confirmed as Secretary of Education on February 7 after Vice President Mike Pence cast a vote to break a 50-50 tie among senators. DeVos, a wealthy advocate for voucher programs and K-12 charter schools, presents a great deal of uncertainty for the higher education sector. She has little record in this area and made few remarks about colleges and universities during her confirmation hearing and the nomination process.

The Senate confirmed the nomination of Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury Secretary on February 13; Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was the only Democrat to join Republicans in support of the nomination. Mnuchin, a former banker with Goldman Sachs and a hedge fund expert, faced criticism from Democrats during his nomination hearing for roles he played during the financial crisis.

During the hearing, Mnuchin told committee members that he will serve as the administration’s point person on tax reform efforts and outlined the Trump administration’s broad tax and economic priorities, saying, “We will work diligently to limit regulations, lower taxes on hardworking Americans and small businesses, and get the engine of economic growth firing on all cylinders once again.” 

Trump’s Higher Ed Agenda Remains Unclear

Secretary DeVos kicked off her tenure with a stop at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC. “We had a robust discussion around the many challenges facing higher education and the important role of HBCUs,” DeVos said in a statement following the visit.

There has been little talk about the undersecretary of education, and some have questioned whether President Donald Trump will even fill that position, which is politically appointed and has traditionally served as an adviser to the secretary of higher education. Ted Mitchell most recently held the position under the Obama administration.

On the campaign trail, Trump said little on higher education until the fall, when he offered his ideas on how to make colleges more affordable. He floated a number of proposals, from pressuring institutions with large endowments to spend more on students to reshaping the way students repay federal loans. He also blamed federal regulations for creating burdens and costs.

In early February, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, announced that he will lead a task force on higher education for Trump. To date, little is known about the focus of this task force, but many expect Falwell to take up concerns with regulatory burden.

With more attention from Trump and lawmakers on Capitol Hill on regulations, NACUBO and other higher education associations are revisiting a 2015 report of the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education, which was highly critical of the Department of Education's oversight of colleges and universities. It stated that institutions "find themselves enmeshed in a jungle of red tape, facing rules that are often confusing and difficult to comply with."

A bipartisan group of senators established the task force in 2013 to help inform their efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. NACUBO provided input about the particular concerns of business officers.

Among the regulations addressed in the 144-page document are the financial responsibility standards, rules for return of Title IV funds when a student withdraws, voluminous consumer information requirements, and campus safety rules. Arguing that "smarter rules are needed," the report laid out guiding principles for improving ED's regulatory scheme.

Trump Tax-Cut Plans Developing

In early February, Trump announced that he is working on a big tax-cutting plan to a group of airline executives at a White House meeting. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer added that the administration is “looking at in the next few weeks rolling out the outline of a comprehensive tax plan” for both individuals and businesses. Secretary Mnuchin will be charged with pitching the plan to lawmakers in the House and Senate.

On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan has been working on plans for Obamacare repeal and replace and tax reform, focusing on a controversial border adjustment tax system as the signature element of his tax reform proposal.

The details of either plan are yet to be unveiled and it will likely be months before lawmakers find a path forward for any major tax cuts, let alone comprehensive reform.


Liz Clark
Director, Federal Affairs