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President Biden’s nominee for under secretary of education, James Kvaal, appears likely to be headed to the full Senate for a vote on his confirmation after a relatively drama-free committee hearing on his nomination.

Kvaal appeared before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Thursday, where Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, ranking Republican on the committee, said Kvaal would probably be confirmed, adding that he would probably support that confirmation. Senator Patty Murray of Washington, chair of the committee, urged a speedy confirmation for Kvaal.

If confirmed, Kvaal, who previously served as deputy under secretary of education during the Obama administration and was most recently president of the Institute for College Access and Success, would have a significant hand in carrying out and forming higher education policy for the federal government. Senators focused much of their questioning of Kvaal on student loan debt, public college tuition and equity, areas where he has backed progressive proposals from the White House.

Republicans generally voiced critiques of the president’s proposals in some of those areas.

“You just made a statement I found to be incredible: we want to eliminate tuition at public institutions. Who’s going to pay for that?” Burr asked Kvaal. “For the states that don’t subsidize education so that it’s affordable for the most at-risk students -- which my state of North Carolina continues to do -- you’re going to penalize North Carolina, who did it right, and you’re going to subsidize the ones that wouldn’t prioritize public education in their states. And if the state can’t fill the gap between affordability and what a student can pay, then the federal taxpayer is going to do that.”

Kvaal said he hoped to work with the senator on framing the legislation if confirmed.

“I believe a new partnership between the federal government and the states is needed to make sure that public colleges and universities are affordable for all students,” Kvaal said. “It’s really going to be important to think about how resources are allocated among states in a way that does not penalize states like North Carolina that successfully kept tuition low.”

Burr also offered criticism of Kvaal’s role in the Education Department under Obama, including his work on the gainful-employment rule -- which sought to penalize institutions whose graduates were not earning enough to pay back their loans -- and the borrower-defense rule, which cancels the federal loans of borrowers who have been defrauded by their institutions. 

Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who served as a football coach at six public universities, used his time to discuss his distaste for teachers’ unions, tenure for professors and liberal policies on transgender athletes’ participation in sports.

“I’m a big proponent of women's athletics, and I think they have come so far in this country. It’s given opportunities to young girls that they would never have had,” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, we’re thinking about allowing young, transgender boys to participate in women's athletics. It’s going to kill it.” (Liberal policies on trans athletes do not allow boys and men to compete against women. They instead allow transgender women to compete against cisgender women.)

Kvaal noted that this is an issue about which people have strong opinions and do not agree.

“The laws written by Congress require the department to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities,” he said. “That includes transgender students and that includes extracurricular activities.”

Democrats focused much of their questioning on equity, access, and lifting student debt burden. Kvaal noted the importance of lifting those burdens, empowering students of color and investing in minority-serving institutions.

Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia asked Kvaal about expanding federal Pell Grant eligibility to include short-term programs, including eight-week programs. Currently, Pell Grants can only be used for programs that are 15 weeks or longer. Kvaal has said he supports doubling the value of Pell Grants, which he himself used when attending college, and would support using Pell Grants for high-quality short-term programs.

Kvaal also voiced support for freedom of speech on college campuses, workforce training and federal TRIO programs that provide services for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

His nomination has been supported by many higher education organizations and institutions. A letter urging the committee to support his confirmation was signed by more than 40 organizations, including the American Council on Education. A markup on his nomination is scheduled for April 21. His confirmation requires a simple majority vote in the Senate.

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