WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos softened her view Thursday on the objections to her appointment to President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, a day after she criticized protesters who she said want to keep new thinking out of schools.

“While some have characterized the flurry of attention around my confirmation in negative terms, I view it as expressions of passion, passionate parents and passionate advocates who care deeply about their kids and about education,” Devos said in remarks to a conference of community college leaders in Washington. “I applaud it and I know the same kind of passion drives all of you.”

In her first appearance at a public higher education event, DeVos lauded the work of community colleges, but offered no details on how the department she leads will support their efforts. DeVos, who has no professional experience in education and narrowly won Senate confirmation, has not said much about her vision for higher education. As a result, policy analysts and college leaders have been eager for signs of where she and the Trump administration stand on student aid, regulations and other higher ed issues.5 highlights of Betsy DeVos’ first public speech as education secretary

On Thursday, DeVos praised two-year public schools as “essential engines of workforce and economic development.” Though she named legislative priorities that are top of mind for community colleges, including an expansion of Pell Grants for low-income students, DeVos did not take a position on any of them. Congress has authority to affect higher ed policy through legislation, but the secretary can advocate policies she deems important. It was unclear from Thursday’s event whether DeVos plans to use her bully pulpit to that end, and the audience had no chance to ask because the secretary was whisked off stage following her remarks.

DeVos spent much of her brief remarks on the role of community colleges in workforce development, noting Trump’s plans to expand vocational and technical education that she said two-year institutions “excel” at providing. She said she shares the president’s vision of making multiple paths for postsecondary education a priority, without elaborating on how the department will accomplish that.

“Your institutions working hand and glove with your business partners play an important role in the goal of getting Americans back to work,” DeVos said. “The president was elected to help bring back jobs and economic opportunity in every region of this country, and he’s outlined a bold plan to foster the creation of 25 million new American jobs in the next decade and to achieve a 4 percent annual economic growth rate.”

Community college leaders have welcomed the Trump administration’s interest in the career and technical training they offer. In advance of DeVos’ address, J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive of the American Association of Community Colleges, said stakeholders in the sector were waiting for signals on areas where they could work together with the administration. He said there is some indication that the new administration supports enabling full-time students who qualify for Pell grants to receive them three semesters a year instead of two. Proponents say the expansion would help students afford to take a full load of courses year-round, earn a degree faster and avoid taking on a lot of debt. Legislation supporting the restoration of so-called year-round Pell cleared the Senate but died in the House last year.Opinion: Betsy DeVos could never be Ruby Bridges

“We need to do everything we can to accelerate student progress and lessen time to degree or transfer,” Brown said. “I’ve heard the administration may be interested in that, which would be great.”

Brown said he is also interested in proposals to extend Pell to fund short-term vocational or occupational training certificates. That, he said, would align with labor force needs and help students find pathways to better-paying jobs. The Trump administration’s interest in vocational education may prove fruitful on both fronts, though no commitments have been made at this point.

DeVos also spoke highly of programs that allow high school students to take college-level classes at community college. Former President Barack Obama’s administration launched an experiment that let high school students enrolled in college courses pay for them using Pell grants. Though that trial is supposed to run for three years, the secretary has the authority to end or extend it.

“Early college programs are a great example of a unique role played by community colleges,” DeVos said. “Not only are these students ready for well-paid jobs in fields like health care and advanced manufacturing, but they can also seamlessly continue their education by transferring to a four-year bachelors program.”

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