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Stanford alum James Kvaal ’96 begins Senate confirmation hearing for education undersecretary

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Student loan debt forgiveness was a contentious issue during James Kvaal’s ’96 otherwise smooth Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.

Kvaal, president of the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success, is nominated for the undersecretary of education position, for which he has bipartisan support. If confirmed, he would assume the third most important position within the Department of Education (DOE), primarily focused on policy actions related to postsecondary education and federal student aid, and would work closely with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

While at Stanford, Kvaal studied public policy and participated in Stanford in Washington. He also spent a quarter at Oxford.

Kvaal is expected to be confirmed quickly, though some of Biden’s other picks face difficult paths to confirmation. Ted Mitchell ’78 Ph.D. ’83, president of the American Council on Education and undersecretary of education during the Obama administration, recently wrote a letter in support of Kvaal’s nomination on behalf of over 40 educational institutions.  

As former deputy undersecretary for education and former deputy domestic policy adviser under the Obama administration, Kvaal helped “[end] wasteful subsidies to banks,” “massively expanded the Pell grant program” and created the College Scorecard, according to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. 

Murray also credited Kvaal for playing a big role in developing “gainful employment,” a 2014 rule which withheld federal aid from for-profit colleges if their graduates faced unmanageable student debt. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos repealed the rule in 2019. 

Some within higher education have criticized Kvaal’s tenure at the DOE as “vanilla” and “making little to no impact,” but Ranking Member Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) commended Kvaal’s “deep expertise” and said that he was excited to work together.

At a time when some 45 million Americans hold over $1.7 trillion in debt, President Biden has faced increasing pressure to take action. In response to Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Kvaal explained that the administration will pursue student loan debt forgiveness by temporarily canceling loans for Americans struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in line with DOE actions from March; revamping the 2007 Public Service Loan Forgiveness program to encourage more students to pursue public service and non-profit work; and focusing on low-income borrowers with high amounts of debt.

In his opening remarks, Burr said that he disapproves of widespread loan forgiveness. He criticized the program’s “one-time cost of as much as one trillion dollars,” and also called it a “regressive policy,” arguing that high levels of student-loan debt accrued from attaining a college education correlate to higher earning potentials which would enable a borrower to repay their debt. 

In February, committee member Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) called canceling student debt a “moral hazard,” but he focused his questioning on Thursday on the College Transparency Act and the high costs of re-diagnosing students with dyslexia within Individualized Educational Plans.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) asked Kvaal how he would support Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Asian American Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, and college students of color more broadly. 

“One of the first orders of business would be aggressively implementing the resources that Congress has provided in the recent economic recovery packages,” Kvaal answered. “I think it’s also particularly important that the voices representing those institutions are heard at the highest levels of the department and the administration.” Kvaal also pledged to invest more into Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Later in the hearing, Senator and former football coach Tommy Tuberville (R-Alab.) criticized the inclusion of transgender athletes in NCAA sports. Kvaal noted the department’s obligation to provide equal access to educational opportunities for all students. “That includes transgender students and that includes extracurricular activities,” he said.

Kvaal highlighted the power of educational institutions to create positive change in society in his opening remarks.

“Few, if any institutions have as much potential to meet America’s most important challenges as our colleges and universities do,” Kvaal said. “At a time when, too often, we talk past one another, colleges can foster the exchange of new perspectives and promote empathy and understanding.”

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Michael Alisky '24 is a contributing writer for the News section studying international relations and computer science. He is from Aurora, Colorado, and enjoys backpacking and playing chess in his free time. Contact The Daily’s News section at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.