The Rant

A Conversation with U.S. Under Secretary of Education, James Kvaal

September 20, 2023 Eloy Oakley/James Kvaal Season 2 Episode 2
The Rant
A Conversation with U.S. Under Secretary of Education, James Kvaal
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I sit down with the U.S.Department of Education Under Secretary of Education, James Kvaal. We discuss a number of wide raging topics including the recent Supreme Court rulings on race-conscious admission and student loan debt forgiveness. Under Secretary Kvaal discusses his goals for the latest rounds of rule making, how his team balances innovation and regulation and his thoughts on whether Congress will ever pass a Higher Education Reauthorization Act. 

Eloy:

I'm Eloy Ortiz Oakley and welcome back to The Rant, the podcast where we pull back the curtain and break down the people, the policies, and the politics of our higher education system. In this episode, we get to break down the policies and the politics of our higher education system with our very special guest. His name is James Quall, and he's the Undersecretary at the U. S. Department of Education. James has been leading the U. S. Department of Education since the beginning of the Biden administration and the undersecretary leads all of higher education policy, which is quite a bit. He and his team have been working hard to support the administration's goals, but also to ensure that the United States higher education community has the policies and regulations and the support it needs. To ensure that students get a quality education. James has been in higher education policy for quite a long time, beginning with the Obama administration, and even before that working with Congress. I'll let him talk more about his experiences. But for now, let me welcome James. James, welcome to the podcast.

James:

Thanks for having

Eloy:

Well, it's great to have you, Mr. Secretary. Appreciate you being on the podcast. There's been so much going on in the Biden administration over the last couple of years, and particularly in the department of education, you've navigated a pandemic, you've seen changes in Congress. Student debt relief debates and of course, a few SCOTUS rulings along the way that continue to change the dynamics in the U S department of education. You've also dealt with predatory for profit tactics and a whole slew of to propose regulatory changes. So before we get into all that. I want to take some time and make sure that our listeners get to know you. for those who have not had the pleasure of getting to know you the way I have, tell us about your higher education journey and what led you to your career in public service and your role as the Undersecretary at the U. S. Department of Education.

James:

I was fortunate, through the sacrifices of my parents, I went to an excellent public school system. I attended two great universities and, I know the kinds of opportunities that education opened up for me and those are opportunities that, you know, I think every, person in this country should have. the other, big piece of it for me was, my parents, my mom in particular, was a lifelong federal civil servant. She was very involved in, town politics, town government, and just had a real, idealism about her, a real belief that government was a way for us to come together and solve problems and make people's lives better. that was really inspiring for me and I, after college, I, I moved out here. I, volunteered on president Clinton's reelection campaign. I got an entry level job here at the department of education and, I've worked a lot on higher education. I've worked on other issues too. I was policy director on the president Obama's reelection campaign worked on all domestic policy issues at the white house, but have kept coming back to higher education because I think. It is so critical to so many of our country's problems. If you're worried about income stagnation or inequality or economic growth, you know, we need strong colleges and universities to solve those problems.

Eloy:

Well, it's amazing to think that you are one of those, young, eager staffers running around the department of education, and now you're the intersecretary. So it must be really great now working with all these young staffers there at the department who have that same idealism that you came with.

James:

we do have a lot of talented young people and, I'm so grateful for. the people who are well along in their careers when I started out and were, mentors to me. I learned a lot from them, political appointees and career staff. And, I think it is important as I'm, as I'm no longer entering middle age, but in middle age to be thinking about, you know, how do we help, younger people come along and they're going to be ones to solve, to solve the problems we leave behind.

Eloy:

Well, I know it's always a debate in this country, but I'm a firm believer that government is so important. To ensuring that we have, not only a country that runs well, but a marketplace that runs well, a marketplace of ideas and a marketplace in higher education. So thank you for your service. and thank you for that story. Now, let's jump into some questions about what's going on at the department. I know one issue that's fresh on everybody's mind. Still. I know in a lot of circles that I run in, this is still a topic of discussion. The U. S. Supreme Court's ruling on race conscious admissions. I know the department recently gathered a number of higher education leaders at a summit to talk about these issues. So, you know, How do you see the ruling affecting diversity on college and university campuses, and what kind of insights did you and your team gather from that summit at the Department of Education?

James:

Thanks for the question. Obviously. although the decision, was expected by some, or at least not a surprise, you know, it was still really difficult, to see those words on, on the page. At least it was for me an emotional day. And, I think what you know, what the president has said, and we've taken to heart is, you know, Supreme Court can render a decision, but it can't change what our country stands for. And so, when, the secretary gathered 100 higher ed leaders, here in August, including you, Eloy to talk about what's next, you know, I think it was a really powerful day for people to, remember why we're doing this work. to talk about the many, many ways we can promote greater equity and greater diversity, that are still fully permissible and are proven to work and to bring a new sense of urgency to that work of racial equity. I think it is so important that. We don't become demoralized. We don't retreat. We don't let our young people lower their sights, but instead we redouble our efforts because that's what this moment calls for.

Eloy:

Well, I certainly agree with that, and coming from a state that has been operating... under rules under a proposition that banned the use of race conscious admissions since 1997. it is, it is a challenge and it can be a challenge. but I think that there, there is. Of value in a diverse student body, there's value in bringing together different ideas, different people of all sorts of backgrounds. I think a university and a college campus are stronger for that. We as a country is stronger for that. And California certainly has benefited from that diversity. So I hope that we continue to push our educational leaders to continue to look for ways to support. Learners of all backgrounds in their communities. So thank you for the work that you're leading. do you see any follow up to that summit or any expectations that you'd like to communicate to? institutional leaders

James:

I of course agree with you on the value of diversity. And so does the Supreme court, you know, the majority opinion talked about diversity as a appropriate, even laudable goal for educational institutions. And, you know, diversity is a core strength of our country. That's one of the things that. Makes us great. So we do need to keep working toward that and we've put out some guidance on what's legally permissible and admissions and student support services and now we're going to put out some additional guidance on what models are out there, what the research says. who's doing great work in this area. You know, there isn't going to be a single, simple solution. It's going to take hard work across preparing more people, recruiting them for college, affordability graduation rates, changing admissions policies, all of that across the board. We're going to have to look at all of that.

Eloy:

so the supreme court has kept you pretty busy lately and there's another issue that came about recently with regard to, the administration's policy on debt relief. And this has been an issue that's been discussed quite a bit in all corners of, of education, all corners of the media. What we do about the mounting student debt crisis that I think we all can agree is a crisis across this country, the amount of debt that many learners are carrying, whether they completed their higher education or not. The way that they're struggling to pay back those loans has been a real issue But the question now is what do we do going forward? Supreme Court ruled on the administration's use of their authority. Around debt forgiveness. what do you see as the way forward for student loan debt? What would you like borrowers to, to know about the way forward that you and the administration are, Paving a path toward.

James:

somewhere along the, along the way we, Okay. Decided that loans were the best way to pay for college that is based on the assumption that the benefits of college are primarily for the student and primarily in financial terms. And that's really a narrow view of what education is about in our country and the, the stake we all have and having more people graduate from college and having a more educated society. And 1 of the things we saw at the start of this administration was the student loan system, you know, just wasn't working very well for a lot of people. We had a 1, 000, 000 people a year defaulting on their student loans. We saw black borrowers. Owing essentially the same amount that they borrowed after 10 or 12 years in repayment. We saw only 7, 000 people had ever gotten public service loan forgiveness. So people have planned their careers around this program, only to learn too late that they had the wrong type of loan or they were in the wrong repayment plan. So there's a, there's a big issue here both in how we help people with loans, how we pay for college at the outset, and how we make sure that when someone is borrowing for an education that they can expect to graduate and get a job and get something of value. So there's a lot of work to do in terms of the Supreme Court decision specifically, you know, we're working very hard to fix. The categorical loan forgiveness programs that we have public service loan forgiveness, people with persistently low incomes, people with disabilities, and we've identified 3. 5M people eligible for those kinds of loan forgiveness. We've created the most affordable repayment plan ever the safe plan Which cuts payments substantially, especially people who have high debts and lower incomes. And we have 4 million people enrolled in that plan. It's only a couple of weeks old. So we're asking everyone to help us make sure that borrowers know that this relief is available and enroll in that relief, and we're going to keep at it. You know, we have a rulemaking process starting here in a couple of weeks, looking at what other types of loan forgiveness we can offer. And the president has asked us to reach as many. Borrowers as possible work as quickly as, as we can. And that's what we're

Eloy:

well, I think it it is certainly the case that you have moved quickly even before the SCOTUS ruling Post scotus ruling the department the administration has forgiven quite a bit of debt already from Learners who were defrauded by for profit institutions learners who have been left in the lurch for one reason or another as well as a public student loan forgiveness program. So that's quite an accomplishment and that's a lot of debt that you've forgiven. how do you feel about how much you've accomplished so far?

James:

I'm really proud of it. I think we have an incredible team here. Rich corduroy in the group at FSA, Ben Miller and Julie Morgan and rich Williams and many others here at the department. You know, we have an incredibly strong team and we're fixing, some of these programs. That have been broken for decades and delivering real relief for people. You know, that said, I know we have a long way to go as well. And I hear from a lot of borrowers who are restarting repayment, they owe payments in October. There's a lot of confusion. There's a lot of anxiety. People are not sure how they're going to make room in their budgets for student loan payments. For some of them, it may take. Some time know there's there's a lot of work still to do.

Eloy:

A lot of organizations are trying to get information out to borrowers. I know I had Mike Pierce on this program from student borrower defense. They're doing a lot of work to get information out about the save program, about public student loan forgiveness, and a whole host of other loan forgiveness programs. I know civic nation is getting the word out there. If people are listening today and they say, you know, I've got to get some information to my son or daughter. I need, I need to do something about my own. A loan debt, would you direct them to go to get information?

James:

Well, the best place to go is student aid dot gov. We have all the, all you need to know about our repayment plans or our loan forgiveness programs are there and you can also find your loan servicer and call them. If you have more questions please know we'll never have to pay for student loan advice. If you. See someone out there who you think might be a scam, please report them to the FTC and, you know, your listeners out there who might be institutional leaders, consider signing up or partnering with the Save on Student Debt campaign. They have a lot of resources there in ways that are very useful and we found, some leaders helping their employees enroll in public service loan forgiveness. Helping them enroll and save, you know, really can be a tremendous help to a lot of people. And, and we're grateful for whatever work can be done to get the word out on these benefits.

Eloy:

So let's turn the corner on some of these bigger issues that were brought to everybody's attention because of recent Supreme Court rulings. And let's talk about the day to day work that the department does. And that's the rulemaking work that you're responsible for, that the department is constantly working on. There's been so much going on. I've had several guests on who have been amazed at how much you've taken on. It has been quite a bit. you've taken on things like gainful employment, you've talked about changes to the definition of third party servicer, you just mentioned income driven repayment and a whole host of other issues like borrowed defense rules. So, you and your team have been busy. I know some of this work is still in progress, but generally speaking, what are you trying to accomplish with all these rulemaking efforts? And and what should higher education leaders and third party intermediaries know about the changes that you'd like to see in the post secondary education marketplace?

James:

So we've done a lot of work on cleaning up the student loan program. We just talked about some of it and a lot of our regulations are around making sure if you're cheated by a college, you can get relief. If you have a persistently low income, we have help for you. If you become disabled. And so those are a lot of our regulations is making sure those programs actually deliver the benefits that were intended and that borrowers aren't. We've also been asked by the secretary to take a look at. Where is all this unaffordable debt coming from and having spent hundreds of billions of dollars in offering relief to students, you know, there's a desire to make sure we are consistently making sure that student loans are actually leaving people better off going forward. So that's something else that we're looking at, and we see, you know, a lot of unaffordable loans, uh, still Come from for profit colleges. And we have new standards coming out now that will. Require a minimum level of value out of career programs, including for profit programs. across the board, we want to make sure that when students are taking out a loan that they are able to afford to repay that loan, that they're getting good value for that loan. that's something we're looking at across the board. What are the ways to make sure that. Colleges are accountable. Students are protected. Taxpayers are protected.

Eloy:

I know that you've spent a lot of time talking with a whole host of different constituent groups, and you spent some time at the ASU GSV summit talking to startups, private equity firms, people in the higher education marketplace that come from a variety of different angles, to this issue In your conversations with them, as you think about innovation in higher education, how are you in the department thinking about how you balance innovation with consumer protection?

James:

look, clearly there's a lot of exciting stuff happening out there. We live in a time of tremendously rapid change and I think it's, there's a, there's a human tendency to get used to situations very quickly. But if you look back, even, 5 or 10 years, you can see that what we do for work is just changing so quickly. And if anything, that's going to continue to change even more quickly. And at the same time, the way students learn the way we teach. Is also evolving very quickly. And, you know, what I hear from college presidents is, you know, we're not going back to 2019. You know, students want to have options and maybe live in a dorm, take 1 class online, participate in student groups. So there's a lot of change coming, both in what we teach and how we teach it, and we need to make that kind of change possible now. I think 1 of the challenges in federal policy as. At least the way it's set up right now is, you know, there's not a lot of room. There's sort of all or nothing. If you become eligible for Pell grants, you become eligible for student aid. Suddenly you're hooked up to the, the main line. And we saw, you know, we saw colleges. A decade ago, grow from 500 students to 100, 000 students in just a couple of years, and it turned out it wasn't by delivering great results. When you grow that fast, you don't have time to see what the results are. I think we need to find ways to support innovation, figure out what works, let people try new things, let people deliver stronger outcomes, you know, in ways that don't trigger concerns about leaving students worse off. Or leaving taxpayers, on the back holding the bag for

Eloy:

Well, I know I and the people I've talked to really have appreciated you being open to these conversations. I know you and your team have a tough job to continue to strike that balance, continue to try to keep up with all the changes. At the same time, you've got to protect you. The students, and as you said, you got to protect the main line, you've talked a lot about the administration, we've talked about SCOTUS, we've talked about some of the work that you're leading in terms of rulemaking. There's another branch to the government that is very much involved in higher education, and that's Congress. And it has been quite a long time since Congress addressed the act that basically authorized most of what you do, the higher education act, the higher education reauthorization act. It's been something that many of us have been talking about for a long time and talking with members of Congress for a long time. Do you see anything happening on the Hill? Do you see any chance that there might be a further discussion about reauthorizing the act.

James:

Well, I hope so. I think that 1 of the challenges of a reauthorization is that it's comprehensive. And so all issues are on the table, and there are some issues right now where, you know, people have very different views that I think will be challenging to navigate. You know, that said, there also are a lot of issues where there's common ground. I think people appreciate the value of workforce programs some of which are very high quality, but aren't eligible for Pell grants. There's a lot of interest in informing student decisions called Transparency Act. There's a lot of interest in. Simplifying the programs. Fewer loan repayment choices. So I think that there is a lot of potential common ground. Around the changes we'd like to see in higher education policy, you know, whether we get from here or there, it's

Eloy:

right? Well, I think it's, that's clear to a lot of us, but there's always hope and there's a lot, there are a lot of great discussions happening in Congress. A lot of great ideas that are being proposed. But hopefully we can come to some consensus and, and give the Department of Education the authorization it needs to keep up with the innovation that we just talked about,

James:

That's right.

Eloy:

As we begin to close, I know some of our listeners have not had as much interaction with you, your team, the Department of Education, and it's still sort of this mystery out there in Washington, D. C. that they hear about, that they have to deal with every now and then is, they see as a bureaucracy. For our listeners, how would you describe The Department of Education and the undersecretary's office and everything that's associated with that. would you explain the role of you and your team?

James:

first of all, come on by. We love to meet with the field. We love to visit. And I mean, that you specifically Eloy, please come on by. We still have a desk for you. Anytime you're willing to come back and help us out. we have a lot of people here with long careers in the field. People like Nassar Paydar and Noah Brown. we work historically. The federal government has worked on the affordability side of the access problem Pell grants, student loans. How do we make it easier for call for students to enroll and complete? Alongside those questions become questions of eligibility, which lend themselves to questions about sort of baseline performance or what is unacceptable enough that perhaps it shouldn't be eligible for federal student aid. And the 3rd, big area of work, that's really a little newer with this administration is, you know, how do we partner with the people doing great work out there to create more opportunities for people? think 1 of the most exciting trends, not just in higher education, but our entire country has been the graduation movement, the increase in 8 percentage points of the last decade. That's actually an incredible number. And we've gone from a couple of boutique programs that proved it was possible to now entire campuses, even entire systems moving the needle on graduation rates. I think there is a lot of work for the, community to do and using data, using evidence to try and find those things that work and changing people's lives. we're trying to reorient the department to be helpful to to those efforts in the field. And help people trying to do the hard work of creating opportunity and, you know, we'll be the, we'll be the junior partner in that effort, but we want to highlight good work and fund fund efforts to build that evidence, make data available where it's helpful.

Eloy:

Well, listen, Mr. Undersecretary, I really appreciate the work that you're leading appreciate the effort and the sacrifice that your team makes. I've worked with several departments of education, Republican, Democrat. I know how difficult it is to bring policy and politics together in a town that's full of politics. On issues that are full of politics. So it's never easy. Rulemaking is never easy. Nobody likes regulation. But I've seen you and your team in action, and I believe that you're truly dedicated to trying to higher education for. Learners across this country. So thank you for being on the podcast and thank you to you and your team for your service.

James:

Thanks, Eloy. I mean, it starts at the top. We have very strong leadership with the president, the secretary, and we have an incredibly deep bench. thank you for the kind words and thank you for the work that you're doing. I've been a longtime admirer of yours as well. So appreciate the time.

Eloy:

All right. Well, you've been listening to undersecretary James Kwal. We've talked about the work that he's leading at the U S department of education, and I really appreciate him taking the time to be on the podcast to talk about that work. And to talk about what his team has been working on. So, thanks everyone for joining me here on The Rant. If you enjoyed this episode, please hit the like button, subscribe to this YouTube channel, and leave us your comments. Tell us what you thought about the interview. What you think about the work that the U. S. Department of Education is leading, both in higher education and in the K 12 space. There's lots to talk about. And make sure that you continue to follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Thanks for joining us, everybody, and we'll see you again soon.