Senate confirms James Kvaal to Ed Dept’s top higher ed post

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Senate on Tuesday approved James Kvaal, a lawyer and longtime policy adviser, as undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education, the top post overseeing higher education. 
  • The 58-37 vote ends a running battle between the White House, which nominated him in February, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who impeded his confirmation until President Joe Biden’s administration promised to make changes to the federal student loan program.
  • Department officials last month signaled they would give states more latitude to regulate student loan servicers and began the process of rewriting regulations that govern federal aid. The agency also has been forgiving billions of dollars in student loans, including recently for more than 300,000 students with disabilities.

Dive Insight:

Kvaal is entering the Education Department during a turbulent period for the sector. The Biden administration is embarking on a massive regulatory overhaul, including on hot-button issues like how colleges should investigate and potentially punish sexual violence on campuses. 

But Warren’s move to block his confirmation over the federal lending program represents the issue’s particular importance. Warren released the hold on his nomination last month, saying in a statement to Politico that she had “productive conversations” with Kvaal and the administration and that she was pleased they had pledged to make “substantial reforms” to the loan system. 

The senator is among the progressives who have called for Biden to exercise executive power to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower amid the financial uncertainty brought by the pandemic. 

The coronavirus continues to scramble colleges’ plans as well, as they see rising case counts due to the highly contagious delta variant. Some flipped to remote instruction temporarily as a way to mitigate the virus’s spread. Vaccine requirements and mandatory mask-wearing also continue to fuel political debates on campuses nationwide.

Kvaal will lead the administration’s approach to postsecondary policy. He was most recently president of the nonprofit The Institute for College Access and Success. He was also a key figure in the Obama administration’s Education Department, helping shape its strategy on income-based repayment plans for loans and stricter regulatory oversight of for-profit colleges. 

The president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, the top trade association representing for-profit schools, in a statement congratulated Kvaal, saying the organization appreciates “his reputation of separating politics from policy, and we look forward to finding common ground on accountability rules that apply to all postsecondary institutions.”

Higher education groups had also pushed Senate leaders to confirm Kvaal. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, on behalf of more than a dozen higher ed organizations, wrote to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last week asking the body to vote in his favor.

Mitchell in that letter referenced bipartisan support Kvaal earned in the Senate’s education committee, which in April approved his nomination in a 19-3 vote. He called Kvaal “an exceptional choice.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona issued a statement praising Kvaal after his confirmation. 

“With this confirmation, the Biden Administration and the American people gain a dedicated and distinguished public servant with strong expertise in higher education who will always put students first,” Cardona said.

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