Preserving civil rights in the Higher Education Act

It’s no secret that the Education Department led by Betsy DeVos has threatened civil rights advances and even tried to shut down her own department’s Office for Civil Rights. So equity advocates, foreseeing further challenges as the Higher Education Reauthorization Act moves through committees and meetings, have banded together and issued a list of 10 principles to protect civil rights in higher education.

On April 25, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, and 46 other civil rights and education groups—including the AFT—identified 10 critical civil rights principles that must be included in any reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In the principles, the groups highlight the role the landmark legislation has played in providing greater opportunity for low-income people, people of color, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people and immigrants to go to college.

“Any reauthorization of the Higher Education Act must make it easier for every person in this country to pursue higher education successfully, regardless of where they grew up, the color of their skin, their religion or their immigration status,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Congress has a responsibility to ensure that everyone who wants to go to college can go to one that will support them.”

The HEA was originally passed in 1965 as a way to make higher education more accessible to more people. It includes the entire financial aid system as well as civil rights policies designed to make public colleges and universities inclusive and welcoming to all students. But in recent months, DeVos has weakened policies designed to protect students from sexual assault, and others that protect black and transgender students from discrimination and bias. Most recently, her department dismissed hundreds of civil rights complaints under a new protocol that appears to value efficiency over justice.

The principles drawn up by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights state that any reauthorization must:

  1. Invest in and support institutions that serve high populations of traditionally underrepresented students, including HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), HSIs (Hispanic-Serving Institutions), PBIs (Predominantly Black Institutions), TCUs (Tribal Colleges and Universities), ANNHIs (Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions), NASNTIs (Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions) and AANAPISIs (Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions)
  2. Ensure robust implementation and enforcement of civil rights laws.
  3. Remove barriers to enrollment and promote meaningful access.
  4. Increase student persistence in and completion of a quality, racially equitable postsecondary education.
  5. Make college affordable for low-income students.
  6. Provide for the collection and reporting of higher education data.
  7. Design accountability systems to ensure students receive value from their higher education, and not in a way that limits opportunity.
  8. Exclude for-profit colleges from federal financial aid programs unless they have demonstrated their value to students.
  9.  Protect student loan borrowers.
  10. Ensure safe and inclusive campus climates.

Signatories include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Association of University Women, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others.

[Virginia Myers]