10th Anniversary Interview Series: Under Secretary James Kvaal


To close out California Competes 10th Anniversary Interview Series, Executive Director Su Jin Gatlin Jez speaks with US Department of Education Under Secretary James Kvaal.

As the Under Secretary, Kvaal provides leadership in bringing the Biden-Harris Administration’s postsecondary education reforms into fruition. He is an equity champion and has decades of experience tackling higher education issues across the nation, having previously served in the US Department of Education and White House during the Obama Administration, where he worked on tightening for-profit college regulations and establishing a plan for free community college. He also helped organize the White House Summit on College Opportunity, which featured more than 100 college presidents and other leaders committing to actions to help more students graduate from college. Most recently, he was president of The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), a research and advocacy nonprofit focused on higher education affordability, accountability, and equity and one of California Competes’s partners.

Kvaal went to college in California, graduating from Stanford University, and went on to receive a law degree from Harvard.

During their conversation, Under Secretary Kvaal shares his insights on the Administration’s plan to support an equitable post-pandemic recovery. Read further to learn more about his views on building a system of inclusivity, higher education-employer engagement, as well as evidence-based policymaking.


Dr. Jez: Everyone has their journey. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming Under Secretary, and how your experiences shaped how you view higher education and workforce policy?

Under Secretary Kvaal: I was very fortunate growing up. My parents made sacrifices so I had an excellent public school system that I went to, I went to some very good universities, and I knew that those opportunities that they created for me gave me a lot of choices. That’s something that I think every young person should have–that same kind of opportunity and education and choices in their career.

When I graduated from college, I moved to Washington and started working on student financial aid at the Department of Education. I’ve been in Washington for a while now, where I worked on higher education quite a bit and also worked more generally on domestic policy. I keep coming back to higher education, because I think that the challenges our country faces– around stagnant incomes, lack of equitable opportunity, an inability to understand each other– are things that higher education has to be a big part of the answer. So, building the higher education system that we need–that lives up to its potential–is one of the most important things we could do for our future.

Dr. Jez: I agree. The higher education thread goes across all of our nation’s and state’s issues, even if it doesn’t feel like a higher education specific issue. You were confirmed as the Undersecretary in September 2021. How has it been so far?

Under Secretary Kvaal: It’s been really invigorating. We have an incredible team at the Department of Education, and we’re doing an incredible amount. We’re working really hard on making student loans more affordable, increasing scholarship access, and trying to do a better job running the programs and getting the students the benefits they’re entitled to.

Secretary Cardona has also asked us to look at how we build a system of higher education that values inclusivity and functions as a reliable path of upward mobility. That’s a really broad and exciting mandate to have.

Dr. Jez: You mentioned executing programs and doing that fidelity. I think one of the things that I’ve been seeing a lot amongst friends and in social media media is the public service loan forgiveness and the excitement people get when they see that the program works. I think that’s one thing–as policy folks–we think a lot about new solutions, but thinking about how we get the solutions that we’ve already implemented to actually be implemented well is really critical too.

Under Secretary Kvaal: Yes, I agree. There’s a tendency as a policy person to think, “Okay, we did it, we solved it, and I will hand it over to the people who implement it.” One of the things that we found when we started a year ago was all these borrowers who were eligible to have their loans canceled–whether they were in public service, were disabled, or been cheated by their college–had their applications still pending at the department, when we knew based on the information we had that they should have had their loans canceled. In trying to move through that, we’ve done 680,000 borrowers so far. One of the most important parts of making the student loan program work for borrowers is getting them the relief that they’re entitled to.

Dr. Jez: You used to lead the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), one of California Competes’s partners. Having led TICAS, one of California Competes’s partners in research and advocacy – can you speak about the importance of data and research for informing policymaking and collective change?

Under Secretary Kvaal: Yeah, it’s really an important tool for policymakers, because when you’re in a government job, it’s just fire drill after fire drill, and it’s hard to look down the road. Something like a TICAS or a California Competes can do is think in a bigger picture way. What are our long term objectives? What are the research and data that can inform the path to get there? What are the concrete steps?

I think one of the great things that we tried to do at TICAS, and that California Competes does, is produce information that is just so reliable that you can count on it. You don’t need to fact check it, or do your own research. You can take that recommendation and run with it, and that’s such an important way to have an impact on policymakers.

Dr. Jez: Can you talk a little bit about what makes that work reliable and trustworthy?

Under Secretary Kvaal: One thing is to be empirically sound. You have to produce factual analysis that is even handed, and try and resist the temptation to stack the deck. You want to acknowledge contrary evidence, because that really makes your conclusion that much more persuasive, and it will stand up as their recommendations get into the back and forth of the policy process.

The other thing is having policy recommendations that keep the big picture in mind, but also think about the tools and the moment and how you can make concrete steps in ways that can be operationalized. Having that careful recommendations about how to get from here to there is something I think California Competes does really well.

Dr. Jez: So right now in California, we’re in the process of standing up a statewide longitudinal data system, the Cradle-to-Career Data System, which I know is something that when you were leading TICAS, TICAS supported and advocated for the launch of. Given your bird’s eye view on the states across the US, the various integrated data systems that exist, and realizing that California is one of the last states to to set one up, what words of wisdom do you have for California as we move forward?

Under Secretary Kvaal: I’m so excited that you all are doing this and congratulations! I know it’s something California Competes has worked on for a really long time. If you want to know whether students are reaching their goals, you have to look at data to determine whether they are or are not. A lot of the educational system depends on passage of students from one school to the next and into the workforce.

To determine if a college is preparing students for college-level work or is a community college student going to successfully transfer and graduate from a four-year university, you need longitudinal data in order to be able to provide that feedback back to schools. So, it’s really important.

You want to be looking carefully at how to structure the data so that it is actionable and drives improvement. Everyone is going to have questions that they want to answer, so you need to think very carefully about what is really going to have an impact on decision making by institutions or by students.

The second thing is to really make sure you’re disaggregating the data because we know that different students can have very different experiences. Often, low-income students, students of color, and first generation students can face additional obstacles. Even if a particular college or particular program has a high graduation rate or seems to be sending people into the workforce, that’s not necessarily true for all students. We can’t just be looking at the averages; we need to be disaggregating that data.

Dr. Jez: Higher education enrollment has declined during the pandemic, and California is not immune to this national trend. Can you discuss how the US Department of Education is thinking about addressing this issue, and what initiatives are underway?

Under Secretary Kvaal: It’s definitely a concern. Nationally, enrollment is down by close to a million students. You have to worry that those students won’t get back on track, and you’ll have a permanent dent in our country’s educational attainment that could have an impact on our society for decades to come. I know that some schools are seeing a rebound in applications this year. We still see FAFSA applications are down again, and a lower share of high school students are projected to complete a FAFSA this year.

So one, we need to make sure that high school seniors know that this is a good time to continue their education and that they should be going back to campus this fall. Another focus is to pay really careful attention to retaining students and trying to bring back students. I know some colleges are waiving fees and fines because it can be a barrier. We need to think much more carefully about the needs of adult students who really need to be served in ways that are different, fast, and provide real payoff and flexibility in schedules. We can’t just go back to 2019 and think these problems are going to heal themselves. We really got to pay attention to the things we need to do to serve students well in 2022 and beyond.

Dr. Jez: Let’s shift a little bit to talking about the Build Back Better plan. A big piece of that is increasing the capacity of existing workforce systems and creating better higher education and workforce alignment to support our economic recovery. Can you share a little bit about the administration’s plan for tackling career readiness and strengthening the country’s ability to meet workforce needs?

Under Secretary Kvaal: This is something that’s really important to the Secretary, and he reminds us that students are going back to school, not just to get a diploma, but to get the career or the job that they want, so it’s really important for us to be paying attention to those outcomes. We’re seeking funding to help community colleges work directly with employers and design programs to meet the needs of not just a single employer, but a sector of employers or an industry. Those are the kinds of things that we see really paying off. Career programs are often more expensive for community college to offer so we need to make sure we’re providing that kind of funding.

This is an area where the policy response is really fragmented, and stovepipes really get in the way of students trying to navigate this system. We’re working really hard with our K-12 colleagues to try and integrate career education, including early college opportunities in high school. We’re also working with our colleagues at the Labor Department and the Commerce Department, because our concern is that those stovepipes get created at the federal level, and then they get replicated at the state level and the local level. We think it’s really important for us to model that kind of collaboration.

Dr. Jez: You touched on a couple of things that are California Competes priorities right now. I’d love to hear you talk more about the higher education-employer engagement piece. How do you get higher education to engage employers and vice versa? Have you seen anything that really works? How are you thinking about pushing forward these authentic relationships that center around student success?

Under Secretary Kvaal: It can be challenging. You need to make sure that employers see colleges as part of the solution. I think more and more are, and it’s exciting to see some very large employers create partnerships with colleges to offer new educational opportunities to their workers, whether to gain promotion at their job or even as a stepping stone to other jobs and other careers. That’s really exciting.

The President will be talking more about it tonight at the State of the Union. He sees higher education as a really important part of our response to the moment we’re in, where we’re trying to grow the middle class, strengthen our supply chains, and strengthen our domestic manufacturing. All of those are real priorities for this Administration.

Dr. Jez: Another component of the plan focuses on childcare, and California has many student parents. Frankly, most adults that we need to go to college have dependent children. Figuring out how to better serve student parents is something that California Competes has been very focused on. How is the Administration working to expand pathways for student parents and to address their needs to improve their college success?

Under Secretary Kvaal: It’s a really important question because if you’re talking about trying to give students onramps at different points in their lives and serving adults, childcare is part of the question. You will hear the President talk about some of his plans for childcare tonight, and hopefully, Congress will be persuaded that those are smart investments to make. I hope they will.

In the meantime, we’re working very hard on an interagency basis. We want to make sure that other agencies understand that this is the reality of who college students are now, and that if we help students get through school, we’re creating a lot of opportunities for self sufficiency going forward. It can be a really smart investment to help student parents get childcare, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and other types of benefits that they’re eligible for. We’re trying to be as helpful as we can, both in talking to our colleagues in Washington and also talking to colleges about the types of benefits that students may be eligible for.

Dr. Jez: Really getting again at that sort of implementation execution, right? You have these things that are already in place, let’s make sure that people that are eligible for it actually get it.

Under Secretary Kvaal: Right, and often with federal dollars. For states, if you can get a student SNAP benefits, that’s hundreds of dollars a month, and it’s all federal money. So it’s a win.

Dr. Jez: As we think about how to better serve adult learners, we have a study that looks at the demand for higher education in California, and the demand for it is huge. We find that one in five California adults say they intend to enroll in college in the next two years, and that a third of them prefer exclusively online courses. How do we make sure this leads to good outcomes for students? I would love to hear what do you see as the future for online or hybrid higher education, and how do we strengthen the digital infrastructure so that everyone has equitable broadband access?

Under Secretary Kvaal: That future is being written right now. One thing we know is people don’t want to go back to 2019, so there will continue to be greater demand for online, hybrid, and flexible options. That’s great for working adults and working parents. If done well, online education can help people master material more quickly and help us measure the effectiveness of pedagogy in a way that’s hard to do in the classroom.

We also know there are some things that online is not as well suited for. There are some types of subjects or occupations, and there are some learners who do better in person and who want that additional support. We need to be really careful about not trying to simplify this into online, good or bad, but instead, the purposes of how online is used. You make a really important point that through the pandemic, the tide came out, and we saw a lot of the inequities that were already there in terms of access to broadband, laptops, and safe and quiet places to do work. We can’t lose sight of the extra effort to make sure those opportunities are equitable.

Dr. Jez: Looking ahead, what priorities does the Administration have for higher education?

Under Secretary Kvaal: We’re working on three main areas of priorities. One is the pandemic recovery. We’re making progress as a public health matter, but we do know we have the missing enrollments, and we have students with academic gaps and with mental health needs. We have a long road back, and we can’t lose focus on that.

The second thing that we’re thinking a lot about is student loans. Student loans have become a really important part of how people pay for college, but we also know a lot of people are struggling with their loans. In some cases, people are worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college at all when they’re left with a debt. We need to make sure college is more affordable upfront, and we need to make sure that we’re getting students relief when they can’t afford to pay their loans for a number of reasons.

The third thing we’re trying to think about is how do we build a system of higher education that invests in institutions that are committed to being inclusive, that are working hard to help more students graduate and reach their goals? How do we help them use data and evidence, and how do we elevate the prestige of that work? Our national conversation tends to revolve around a relatively small number of colleges and universities that are defined by their selectivity. What our country needs is colleges and universities that are committed to serving their institutions that look like their communities and help many more students reach their goals. That’s really the important work that we should be investing in and we should be honoring.

Dr. Jez: I love that vision, and I hope California will do its part for the country in meeting those goals. I know that for many of the organizations like California Competes, our peers, and many of our state policymakers, we share those aspirations, and I am hopeful we can get there.

Under Secretary Kvaal: Yeah, I think we can, together. California has been a model in higher education in so many ways, and I think they’re ahead of the curve on this too.

Dr. Jez: Yes, I sometimes forget that–as we focus on problems–we actually have a pretty good system.

Under Secretary Kvaal: Yes, you do.

Dr. Jez: Thank you so much for joining me today for this conversation and sharing your journey, your insights, and your vision for higher education.

Under Secretary Kvaal: Thanks so much for having me, Su Jin.

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