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…
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