WASHINGTON -- Education Department officials confirmed Wednesday that James Kvaal, a special assistant at the White House National Economic Council, would fill Robert Shireman's soon-to-be-vacated position of deputy under secretary. Kvaal will start Monday as a senior adviser to Shireman, and will take his title of deputy under secretary when Shireman leaves July 1.
Kvaal and Shireman both worked on education issues in the Clinton administration, and they co-wrote a 2004 paper  that documented how a group of student loan providers took advantage of a loophole in federal law that allowed them to tap into billions of dollars in unwarranted payments. They have worked closely together since joining the Obama administration, with Shireman largely setting the postsecondary agenda within the Education Department, and Kvaal, as an adviser to President Obama, playing a key role in steering and selling that agenda.
Kvaal is said to have been a driving force within the White House for the now-scaled-back American Graduation Initiative,  and to be passionate about President Obama's push  to increase the proportion of Americans with a postsecondary credential by 2020.
But whether Kvaal will have the kind of influence on higher education policy that Shireman had in his relatively short time in the Obama administration, and how much (and how successfully) he will carry out the agenda of his predecessor, is far from clear.
Those who've worked with Kvaal describe him as having the same sort of sharp and analytical mind, easy-to-work-with personality, and range of Washington experiences that have helped make Shireman effective.
But unlike Shireman, who has spent most of his career working heavily on student aid and other higher education issues, Kvaal is more of a generalist, having written widely on health care,  tax policies,  and other domestic issues, in addition to his firm grasp of postsecondary matters. He will also join an Education Department with a more developed (read: crowded) higher education policy-making team, with an assistant secretary for postsecondary education, Eduardo M. Ochoa,  soon to join Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter in addition to Kvaal. And the administration is likely to shift its education focus to elementary and secondary education in the next year, as Congress prepares to renew the No Child Left Behind law. (Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct an error.)
Kvaal, who graduated from Stanford University and Harvard law school, worked at the Education Department in the late 1990s before joining the White House National Economic Council during the waning days of the Clinton administration, in 2000. He joined the staff of Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) in 2001, and of the former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) in 2003, and then headed up the policy team for Edwards's ill-fated presidential run in 2008.
Before joining the White House domestic policy team in 2009, he worked at the Center for American Progress, where he wrote and blogged  on a wide range of issues, including the need to restore "America's academic competitive edge. " (Watch out, elite colleges: Kvaal's other writings over the years have included a critique of colleges' use  of admissions preferences for the children of alumni and famous and/or wealthy people: "American has stood for the ideal that money and fame are based upon talent and hard work, not family name," Kvaal wrote. "Education -- particularly our system of higher education, the envy of the world – is the engine of that opportunity. Seats at our best colleges should be awarded fairly.")
Kvaal has certainly had numerous jobs that involved him in, and let him influence, federal higher education policy. But he is not the known commodity to most college leaders that his predecessor was. Shireman played a very public role, not just in Washington, but at foundations and nonprofit organizations (the James Irvine Foundation and the Aspen Institute) and advocacy groups (like the Institute for College Access and Success, which he founded) that worked intently on higher education issues, particularly those related to student debt, the issue closest to his heart.
So Kvaal has had virtually nothing to say publicly about some of the key issues that consumed Shireman, and that will presumably occupy his successor -- notably the contentious issues surrounding the growth of the for-profit higher education sector, and the Education Department's efforts to regulate the institutions more aggressively. Kvaal's record is a blank slate on that issue.
But several college lobbyists and other Washington higher education types said they had little reason to anticipate a significant shift in perspective or policies. First, Kvaal has already been influencing Education Department policy, and helping to direct its postsecondary agenda (as well as its labor and training policies), from his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. "I don't think there's anything [Education Department leaders] have done that hasn't involved [the White House]," and hence Kvaal, said Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education.
Second, apart from the injection of Kvaal into the department's organizational ladder, the team that has shaped the agenda so far remains largely intact, including not just Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Kanter, but recent political appointees like Michael Dannenberg and career employees like Daniel Madzelan.
Lastly, Shireman will remain an adviser to Duncan even after he returns to California, department officials said last month, in announcing his departure .
What is likely to consume Kvaal, Kanter and others in the months to come?
- The transition of all student lending to the government's direct loan program, which must go well if department wishes to avoid tons of grief from the lenders and Congressional Republicans who opposed the shift.
- The implementation of whatever regulations the department issues in the coming days or weeks aimed at bolstering the integrity of the student aid programs, which are likely to come under sharp attack from some for-profit colleges and others likely to be affected by them.
- Continued efforts to simplify the process for applying for and distributing student financial aid.
- As hinted at by Shireman in a recent speech, concerns about higher education accreditation and whether the federal government can depend on it to assure the quality of colleges.