ED Under Secretary Talks Debt Forgiveness, Free Community College in Keynote Address

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As student loan payments are soon to resume for borrowers following a nearly two-year hiatus, the Department of Education (ED) is still trying to determine whether it has the authority to forgive large amounts of student loan debt without legislation from Congress, ED Under Secretary James Kvaal said Friday.

Kvaal’s comments on student loan forgiveness came during a wide-ranging keynote address to cap off The Chronicle of Higher Education’s virtual festival, where he touched on several key topics, including the prospect of tuition-free community college becoming a reality in the future and ways the department is trying to restore the public’s trust in higher education.

Kvaal said he believes higher education can be a driving force in addressing equity and upward mobility — two of the most pressing issues facing our country, he said, adding that he and the department keep those issues in mind when developing federal higher education policies.

Regarding student loan forgiveness, Kvaal provided little in additional details on the topic, but said ED is still consulting with officials from the Department of Justice and the White House.

“There’s a lot of deliberations being done with the lawyers. … That's something where we're trying to figure out what our options are,” he said. 

Kvaal’s remarks are of note considering a highly redacted memo outlining ED and the White House’s potential authority to forgive student loan debt through executive action was apparently first drafted in the spring shortly after President Joe Biden first requested the memo, leading many to believe Biden already has an idea of whether he has the authority to unilaterally cancel large swaths of student loan debt.

Kvaal also spoke on the chances of tuition-free community college being enacted at the federal level. As Kvaal was speaking Friday, the House was concurrently passing the Build Back Better Act, Biden’s signature social spending package that at one time included a measure to make community college tuition-free, but was ultimately cut from the bill to reduce the overall price tag.

“I don't know what the path forward is going to be on free community college,” he said. “I do know that it's an idea that's really important to the president personally, and he's talked publicly about his disappointment that it may not make it into the Build Back Better package.”

He added that there’s significant value in free community college and such an investment would send a signal to prospective students that higher education is attainable, but conceded that to get something enacted, it will take legislation from Congress.

"To get something the scale of what the president envisioned is going to take an act of Congress,” he said. “To get that amount of resources, we need Congress."

Amid the public’s dwindling view of the value of higher education and the polarization along partisan lines regarding trust in the country’s colleges and universities, Kvaal said helping students graduate with no student loan debt or a reasonable amount they can pay back in a timely manner is something that needs to be central to discussions on the value of a degree.

He noted that when students are told to take out student loans to finance a postsecondary education in an effort to secure a better life and economic mobility but then don’t complete a degree or get a low-value degree, it’s not hard to understand why some question the cost and value of pursuing higher education.

Additionally, Kvaal spoke about improvements the department is making to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and other debt relief efforts ED is pursuing to help restore the public’s faith in higher education.

“We have a number of protections in the student loan program if you're defrauded or cheated if you are or become totally disabled. And for each of those programs, when we look at the people that we already know are eligible, not to mention people out there who we may not be on our radar … most of them are not getting it,” Kvaal said. 


Publication Date: 11/22/2021

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