States should contribute more toward public higher education to help contain college costs for students, says President Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. education under secretary.
During his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, James Kvaal said that during every recession states have deeply cut their support of higher education when they face budget crises, which has contributed to rising college costs for students.
“That is the primary factor in rising tuition at community colleges and public universities, where almost three-quarters of students go, and a big factor in rising debt levels,” he said.
Kvaal, who served at the U.S. Education Department (ED) and the White House during the Obama administration, said ED wants to work more closely with states to contain those costs for students.
“I believe a new partnership between the federal government and states is needed to make sure that public colleges and universities are affordable for all students,” said Kvaal, who most recently was president of the Institute for College Access & Success.
Ranking minority member Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) tied the conversation to the Biden administration’s plan to forgive student loan debt for certain students and to provide two years of community college tuition-free. Burr asked whether it is fair for residents of North Carolina — which has invested in higher education — to cover the cost of those proposals. He said it seems that those plans would punish states that already prioritize public higher education.
Kvaal said he hopes to work with Burr on legislation to allocate resources among states “in a way that does not penalize states like North Carolina that successfully kept tuition low.”
Higher education advocates are closely watching states as they receive federal stimulus funds for education. They are concerned some states may reduce their support for higher education, though in order to qualify for the new federal aid they must meet maintenance-of-effort requirements.
Lynchpins for recovery
Several members of the HELP Committee noted the important role that the community and technical colleges will play as the U.S. emerges from the pandemic. They can offer Americans an accessible, affordable postsecondary education that will provide them the knowledge and skills for emerging jobs, especially in the career and trade fields.
A number of lawmakers at the hearing said they intend to re-introduce bills that would help students cover costs of attending a public two-year college. For example, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) said she would again introduce the America’s College Promise Act, which would create a federal-state partnership to make two years of higher education tuition-free.
Kvaal, who worked on the concept during the Obama administration, said he backs the idea as well as more support for two-year colleges.
“Investments in them could do a lot to strengthen our economy and promote equity,” he said.
Congressional appropriators have already started to schedule hearings around funding federal programs. The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday will hold a hearing on federal investments in public two-year colleges. Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, will address the committee. He is expected to discuss, among other things, the impact of the pandemic on community colleges and the importance of federal recovery funds to the institutions and their students.
Also on Tuesday, the HELP Committee will hold a hearing on modernizing the workforce during the pandemic through education and retraining. Scott Ralls, president of Wake Technical Community College (North Carolina), will testify.
Supporting CTE, short-term Pell
At the confirmation hearing Thursday, Baldwin also asked whether college career and technical education (CTE) students are getting the hands-on training that some of the programs require. Baldwin noted many of these jobs will be critical to the country’s economic recovery, but she was concerned if there would be enough skilled workers for available jobs.
It has been a challenge to deliver high-quality CTE in a virtual environment, but there are colleges that are doing it successfully, Kvaal said.
“It is important to develop and share those best practices and find ways to invest more in the kinds of programs suited to the conditions we are in today,” he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) noted his support to expand Pell Grant eligibility to short-term programs, something that his proposed JOBS Act would do. He previously advocated for the measure at the nomination hearings of both U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
Critics of the idea argue the programs would be too short to yield any benefit, Kaine said, but often those programs are intensive and open further opportunities for students once they attain the initial credential.
Federal workforce development programs are typically focused on unemployed or underemployed workers who need job training to upskill or to attain new skills, but there isn’t much opportunity for younger individuals who don’t want a degree but seek high-quality training for a job.
“Career and technical education programs can lead to really meaningful career and job opportunities. They deserve the same amount of support and the same amount of respect that other types of higher education programs do,” he said.
Kvaal added there are training programs shorter than 15-weeks that produce strong outcomes, including the touted FastForward program in Virginia.
The HELP Committee plans to vote on Kvaal’s nomination on April 21. It also expects to vote on the nomination of Cynthia Marten as U.S. deputy education secretary and Julie Su as U.S. deputy labor secretary.