James Kvaal’s nomination to serve as Department of Education (ED) under secretary cleared a procedural hurdle on Thursday with bipartisan accolades coming from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee.
While members looked to garner additional insight into Kvaal’s higher education policy stances, the hearing’s partisan divide mostly pertained to the issue of debt forgiveness and costs surrounding postsecondary education, which Kvaal appeared to successfully placate throughout his remarks.
The higher education community has largely praised Kvaal’s nomination and during Thursday’s hearing, committee chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) touted his prior work in the Obama administration which ranged from strengthening Pell Grants, simplifying the FAFSA, supporting student loan borrowers, and working to increase state and federal investments in higher education.
Murray said that Kvaal, previously president of the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), was clearly qualified for the position and that he will be able to tackle the challenges higher education faces in light of the pandemic.
“The painful reality is higher education was at a crisis point well before the pandemic struck,” Murray said.
In her remarks, Murray highlighted that prior to the pandemic student debt was already historically high, with the cost of higher education relentlessly on the rise. She also said that the roots of systemic racism were already deep and damaging and that campus sexual assault was already an epidemic.
“After COVID-19 these problems will remain as urgent as ever,” Murray said. “That's why it's so important we have leaders like Dr. Kvaal at the Department of Education, who have the drive and the experience to tackle them.”
Ranking member Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), was more reserved in his assessment of Kvaal, noting a number of concerns he had about unelected administration appointees usurping Congress in drafting regulations.
Burr specifically took issue with the rollout of the borrower defense and gainful employment regulations.
“I hope you’ll agree that lasting solutions come through the legislative process,” Burr said.
Throughout his remarks, Kvaal pledged to work with members on their legislative agendas.
Republicans also aimed to pin Kvaal down on his views concerning federal student loan debt forgiveness, raising concerns over President Joe Biden potentially offering up to $50,000 in forgiveness through executive action.
“The Higher Education Act – or HEA – was enacted in 1965. Are we supposed to believe that for the last 56 years that the HEA has been in place, the secretary has been able to cancel vast amounts of debt for every single borrower in the United States this whole time and we just didn’t know about it until now?” Burr commented. “Mr. Kvaal, I must be honest with you and with everyone else on this committee: this does not pass the laugh test.”
In addressing questions surrounding his stance on debt forgiveness, Kvaal highlighted three components of addressing student loan debt.
If confirmed, Kvaal said he would first look at student debts that exist now and that students can’t afford to repay. “We see a lot of students whose loans are getting larger rather than smaller as they struggle to repay those loans, particularly among Black students,” he said.
Second, the administration needs to work on making college more affordable for current and future students, which “means investing in eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities, doubling Pell Grants,” Kvaal said.
The third component of his recommendation for dealing with student debt would be putting particular focus on institutions that serve the highest proportion of low-income students and students of color, like community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and minority-serving institutions (MSIs).
In his questioning, Burr also raised concerns over the continued extension of the current moratorium on certain federally-backed student loans — which offers an administrative forbearance period, a pause in interest accrual and monthly payments, and suspended collections activity — indicating a further extension by Biden could face more pushback should the economic recovery from the pandemic prove robust.
Burr also questioned Kvaal on the fairness of implementing free college and how such a policy would be funded.
“I believe that a new partnership between the federal government and states is needed to make sure that public colleges and universities are affordable for all students,” Kvaal said.
Republicans have continually cited concerns over debt cancellation, but the current drafting of a memo from ED detailing the department’s authority to address student loans could mollify congressional debate around the issue.
However, in his concluding remarks Burr indicated that he would ultimately support advancing Kvaal’s nomination.
“I think you will be confirmed and I will probably be supportive of that,” Burr said.
During the hearing, members brought up a number of legislative proposals, including the Repay Act, which would seek to simplify the student loan repayment landscape by reducing the options available to borrowers down to two repayment plans, and the College Transparency Act, which would create a secure, privacy-protected postsecondary data network. Both are pieces of legislation that have been supported by NASFAA.
Kvaal said he looked forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle and also highlighted the need to address permanent solutions for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which has been riddled with issues with only 1% of recent applicants actually receiving forgiveness.
The nomination will be voted on by the full committee next Wednesday, April 21.
So long as Democrats remain fully aligned with Kvaal’s nomination, and members like Burr remain supportive, the nomination should not face much of an obstacle at confirmation.
Publication Date: 4/16/2021