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News Update

Biden nominates expert on college affordability to undersecretary in the U.S. Dept. of Education

President Biden on Friday nominated James Kvaal, an expert on student financial aid and college affordability, to be the undersecretary of education, the third most senior position in the department.

In that role, Kvaal will oversee postsecondary education policies and programs generally, including vocational and adult education, as well as student financial aid.

Kvaal is currently head of The Institute for College Access and Success, or TICAS, which focuses on student financial aid and college affordability. The organization was based in Oakland until Kvaal became president in 2017. The organization still has an office in Oakland, but is now headquartered in Washington D.C.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council of Education, who was undersecretary of education in the Obama administration, praised Kvaal’s nomination. “President Biden could not have made a better choice,” he said, describing him as “an innovative thinker, a deep listener and a collaborative decision-maker.”

The nomination is a sign of the importance Biden is placing on making college more affordable. His ambitious postsecondary education platform calls for making two years of community college free to all students, forgiving up to $10,000 in student loan debt, doubling the maximum value of Pell grants and establishing a new grant program to support “under-resourced” colleges that serve large numbers of low-income students. He also wants to tighten requirements for for-profit colleges before they will become eligible for federal student aid.

Like many Biden appointees, Kvaal held senior appointments in the Obama administration. When he left the administration in 2016, Inside Higher Education described him as “one of the architects of President Obama’s most significant higher education policies.”

If confirmed by the Senate, he will be able to take a crack at expanding on those policies, reclaiming several that the Trump administration either weakened or revoked, along with introducing new ones introduced by President Biden.

During the Obama administration, Kvaal was deputy undersecretary of education, as well as deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. A graduate of Stanford University and the Harvard Law School, he was policy director for Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.

Kvaal would serve under Miguel Cardona, the commissioner of education for Connecticut whom Biden has named to be secretary of education, as well as Cindy Marten, who was superintendent of the San Diego Unified school district until last month, when she was nominated to be deputy secretary of education, the number two spot in the department.

The deputy secretary has considerable responsibility for day to day operations of the department, as well as for K-12 education.

Biden has yet to nominate the assistant secretaries of education who are responsible for specific aspects of educational policy.

California community colleges chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley was also rumored to be a leading contender for the post. But Biden appears to have chosen a Washington insider for the position, as is the case with many other appointments. That’s in contrast to the nominations of Cardona and Marten, who both come from strong K-12 education backgrounds as teachers and school administrators.