In nominating James Kvaal to be under secretary of education — the nation’s top official on policies affecting colleges and universities — the Biden administration has selected a longtime education policy expert who has focused on increasing access for low-income and other underrepresented students.
Kvaal, who must still be confirmed by the Senate, most recently served as president of the Institute for College Access & Success, where he has also called for greater oversight of for-profit colleges and universities and tried to bring attention to the role skyrocketing tuition has played in driving up student debt.
Kvaal, who had widely been speculated to be chosen for the position, served in the Obama administration as the deputy White House domestic policy adviser, focusing on issues related to economic opportunity and education, as well as deputy education under secretary.
During the Obama administration, Kvaal was a driving force behind some of Obama’s higher education policy achievements, such as overhauling the federal student loan system and expanding income-based repayment for student loans. He was also a key player in the administration’s regulatory battle with for-profit colleges, its attempt at rating colleges and Obama’s plan for free community college.
He is expected to be an influential voice on higher education in the Biden administration, particularly because Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, has focused on K-12 issues throughout his career. The nomination was praised by a number of higher education leaders, including Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, who had served as the under secretary during the Obama administration.
“This is a terrific nomination for students, colleges and universities, and the entire country. President Biden could not have made a better choice,” Mitchell said in a statement.
“In all of his work, he has demonstrated a heartfelt commitment to ensuring that higher education is accessible to all individuals, and has worked well with the field to enable all students to succeed,” Mitchell said.
Martha Kanter, who also served as under secretary during the Obama administration and is now executive director of the organization College Promise, which works to increase access to higher education, also praised the choice.
“James will hit the ground running as U.S. under secretary of education. What’s best for students guides his policy making. Over the years he’s done great work to expand student opportunity and success. He’s deeply committed to finding common ground and shared solutions, whether tackling college costs, student debt, accountability or opening colleges safely as we navigate through and beyond the pandemic,” she said. “He’ll roll up his sleeves, embrace diverse perspectives and move policies forward that mobilize students to acquire the best possible education for our nation’s future.”
The nomination was also applauded by Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “With COVID-19 creating an unprecedented challenge to lives and learning, James takes on the role at a time of critical importance,” he said in a statement. “He will be a strong champion for the nation’s students and the transformative impact of public higher education.”
Cardona’s nomination has not faced serious opposition from Senate Republicans, and there was no immediate opposition to Kvaal’s selection. A spokeswoman for Senator Richard Burr, of North Carolina, the top Republican on the education committee, had no immediate comment, and at least publicly, the association representing the for-profit industry did not oppose the nomination.
If confirmed, Kvaal is expected to bring an understanding of the importance of higher education and the financial struggles of colleges and universities, particularly as funding from state governments has declined in the past couple of decades. He’s also expected to be a voice in the administration for a number of positions he espoused at TICAS, including protecting higher education from deep cuts in state funding.
“Only a decade ago, the Great Recession triggered a sea change in how we finance college. States made deep cuts from which colleges have still not recovered,” he wrote in a column in Forbes inn April.
“It was a disaster for students. Annual per-student borrowing at public colleges rose by $1,100 between 2008 and 2012, a 36 percent increase,” he wrote.
“And here we go again. The coming college crisis could be even worse than the one a decade ago. This time, Congress has no excuse for repeating past mistakes of budget cuts, higher tuition, and higher debts.”
In return for additional federal funding, he wrote that states should be required to promise not to slash their funding for higher education. Kvaal in a New York Times opinion piece in October said proposals by Biden and other Democratic presidential candidates to cancel student debt missed the key role of state funding in the debt crisis.
“The plans released by Mr. Biden, Ms. [Elizabeth] Warren, and the other candidates overlook the central role of the economy in college affordability,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, recessions are inevitable. Unless we find a way to help states weather them, they will slash college budgets and drive up tuition rates, as they have time and time again.”
Kvaal in the Forbes column also called on doubling the maximum size of Pell Grants.
One immediate question faced by the Biden administration is whether to allow undocumented students to be eligible for emergency grants in the coronavirus relief package approved by Congress and President Trump in December.
Then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos angered many, including Kvaal, in declaring that nonresidents were ineligible for help.
“It’s a callous decision that will cause needless hardship. In the middle of a global pandemic and deep recession, we shouldn’t be shutting doors in the faces of people who need help,” Kvaal said of DeVos’s decision to Inside Higher Ed last year.
The Biden administration, even before Kvaal’s nomination, had been expected to enact tougher policies on for-profit institutions. The administration is expected to reverse DeVos’s repeal of Obama administration rules that make it easier for students defrauded by for-profits to have their loans forgiven, and to bar for-profits from receiving federal student aid dollars if graduates do not make enough money to repay their loans.
Kvaal’s nomination only underscores that for-profits could be in for a difficult four years.
Appearing on a webinar last October sponsored by Whiteboard Advisors, a strategic communications and consulting firm, Kvaal predicted the Biden administration would be more aggressive in policing for-profits than was the Obama administration.
The administration, he said, would have a better understanding of how the tactics of some for-profits hurt students than the Obama administration did.
Kvaal also pointed to Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris as one who has had personal experience with the troubles of the for-profit industry, as she talked during the presidential campaign about prosecuting for-profits when she was California state attorney general. “Senior leadership didn’t have that firsthand experience with for-profits” during the Obama administration, he said.
Under Kvaal’s leadership, TICAS’s federal policy agenda says that “stronger policies, oversight, and enforcement are urgently needed to address high-cost but low-quality programs and predatory practices that prey on vulnerable students and our nation’s veterans. These problems are of particular concern in the for-profit college sector, where borrowing rates, debt levels, and default rates are highest.”
The group in 2019 backed a bill sponsored by Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire, which would have, among other things, increased Education Department scrutiny of the conversion of for-profits into nonprofit institutions, barred for-profits from requiring students to agree to settle disputes with the institutions through arbitration and restricted for-profit institutions from using federal funds for marketing or advertising.
“James cares deeply about the fate of students in our higher education system and will be laser focused on protecting them from institutions that might leave them worse off than they started,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy and politics for the centrist think tank Third Way. “It will be like night and day from the last administration. He’ll push for accountability for predatory colleges, not invite them to grow like DeVos and her cabal. He’ll put in place guardrails to protect consumers and work to make sure they have the information they need to make good decisions with their higher education investment. And he’ll make sure the students who need the mobility of higher education the most will be at the forefront, supporting community and open-access colleges and supporting their efforts to improve student outcomes.”
Jason Altmire, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, the industry group for for-profit institutions, congratulated Kvaal Friday but also said, “We hope he agrees that any measures intended to address these issues should apply to all schools in all sectors.”
Kvaal has also expressed concern over student borrowers, writing in TICAS’s annual report on student debt last October, “More than a million students default on their student loans each year, and many more struggle to make their loan payments.”
He warned that “the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting job loss and state budget crises, if left unchecked, are likely to increase reliance on student debt and exacerbate struggles in repayment.”
TICAS in the report recommended simplifying federal programs tying the amount student loan borrowers have to repay each month to their income.
The group recommended that Congress “explore tax-free cancelation of some or all outstanding debt of borrowers whose loans have clearly not paid off and are not on a trajectory to do so.”
“The decisions state and federal policymakers make over the next year will have impacts on student debt that will affect the next 15 years,” he wrote before knowing he would be playing a role in making those decisions.