Biden’s pick for top higher ed post outlines priorities in confirmation hearing

Dive Brief:

  • President Joe Biden’s nominee for the top higher education job in the U.S. Department of Education indicated support for career and technical education, free college and student loan forgiveness during his confirmation hearing Thursday.
  • James Kvaal, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations and most recently led The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit advocacy group, was questioned by a panel of Senate education and labor committee members.
  • The committee’s lead Republican, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, said he thought Kvaal would be confirmed and that he “will probably be supportive of that.” 

Dive Insight:

Kvaal, if confirmed, would be the most senior department official focused on postsecondary education. He would work with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to implement policies for the sector.

During Thursday’s hour-and-a-half-long hearing, senators pressed Kvaal about his views on student loan forgiveness, with some Republicans expressing dissatisfaction with widespread student debt cancellation, an idea that is gaining attention

Kvaal pointed to Biden’s proposals to offer some immediate loan relief in light of the pandemic, to expand public service loan forgiveness, and to focus forgiveness on students with high debt and low income. Kvaal played a key role in the Obama administration’s federal student loan system overhaul.

His responses during the hearing also indicated support for expanding the federal Pell Grant to programs shorter than the current minimum of 15 weeks, and to increase financial aid options for competency-based education programs. Those self-paced programs allow students to earn credit once they demonstrate desired knowledge or skills.

He also said reversing the ban on collecting student-level data on college outcomes, which lawmakers and others have called for, “would be a big step forward.” Bringing about a simplified financial aid process called for in recent legislation would be among his priorities, he said, along with “aggressively implementing” relief aid Congress has provided colleges

He also stated support for community colleges and career and technical programs. Public two-year schools are “one of the leading purveyors of second chances in America,” and investing in them could strengthen the economy and promote equity, he said in response to a question about his view on the impact of tuition-free community college. Kvaal was involved with such proposals during his time in the Obama administration. 

CTE programs, he said later in the hearing, will play an important part in helping people get the skills needed as the job market recovers from the pandemic.

The questioning largely avoided discussion of for-profit colleges, though Burr criticized Kvaal’s contributions to the Obama administration’s crackdown on those institutions, including helping to write gainful employment regulations that critics said unfairly targeted the sector and advocates argued were necessary to prevent abuses of taxpayer dollars.

Higher ed industry groups largely support Kvaal’s nomination. Led by the American Council on Education, more than three dozen organizations in a letter this week urged Senate education committee leaders to support Kvaal.

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