Possible Solutions: An Interview with James Kvaal

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Early this month the Department of Education chose James Kvaal to succeed Robert Shireman as deputy undersecretary of education. The 36-year-old Kvaal, who got his start in politics as a volunteer in President Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign, also worked as a senior fellow at the center for American Progress, as policy director on John Edwards’ presidential campaign, and, most recently, as senior director at the White House National Economic Council, where he worked on higher education, training, and labor issues. Kvaal, who was a panelist at the Monthly’s June 18th discussion on community colleges and employment, recently spoke with the College Guide about his new position.

Washington Monthly: Could you talk to me more about the job you held before this in the White House?

James Kvaal: So the Nation Economic Council is made up of cabinet officials who have a stake in the economy. It’s run by the National Economic Council director, Larry Summers. And it has a staff to help it function. I was a member of the staff. Its role is to coordinate economic policy development across the administration. It tends to take on two types of issues. One is an issue that has an inter-agency component, it’s a neutral broker between different agencies to make sure that everyone’s interests are represented in the decision-making process and the President’s decision has the benefit of advice from across the government. The second thing we tend to get involved in are things of personal interest to the President. It really is a coordinating organization.

WM: Was there anything in particular about that job that prepared you for this new job?

JK: This job is not dissimilar. One of the things we do in the office of the Undersecretary is coordinate work across the department. Here, you have the Counsel’s Office, the Budget Office; it’s important here to make sure that all issues are fully considered. Also, both offices play a policy development role.

WM: What does the deputy under secretary do? Could you tell me what the sort of scope of your job actually is?

JK: I’ll tell you what the undersecretary does. Martha Kanter is responsible for adult and vocational education, post-secondary education, and financial student aid. The things that deal with people after high school. My role is to help her develop and manage policy for these programs.

WM: That includes vocational programs, college access, and all of that?

JK: It does. Obviously the biggest programs in the area are the Pell Grant program and the student loan program. The largest in terms of dollars are the student aid programs.

WM: So what are you interested in doing while you’re here?

JK: Well, the President has set a goal for us, which is to restore the US as first in the world in college attainment by 2020. So, the overarching goal of our office is to help more students enroll in and graduate from college.

WM: One of the things I have trouble with when I’m covering education it is that this was put out there as a goal but then it got dramatically less money than originally planned. So I’m wondering how we’re supposed to meet that goal if we are spending way less money on it then we originally envisioned for the plan.

JK: I actually don’t think that’s a fair criticism. The goal somehow became shorthanded as community college graduates only, which is not true.

WM: Obama gave the speech at a community college. …

JK: He initially laid out the goal in his joint address to Congress, in his second month in office. So then he followed up by talking about how community colleges contribute to the goal, but the goal was always a higher education-wide thing.

The American Graduation Initiative was a set of resources to help reform community colleges but it was not the only thing the administration is doing to help college completion. So, for example, we have more than doubled Pell Grant scholarships. By the same measure, we’ve now tripled the largest college tax credit, the American Opportunity Tax credit. This is 3 times larger than the old tax credit was in 2008. These are really large investments in making college more affordable. The community college funding, it’s true that he proposed $12 billion; we ended up getting 2 billion, not as much as we’d hoped for. It’s also true that funding is over 4 years, instead of 10 years, so it’s not quite as small as it seems.

WM: Could you talk a little about Pell Grants and the role of that in terms of college funding? One of the criticisms of federal investment in education is that ultimately it doesn’t have any role in reducing the price of tuition. You know, poor people can use Pell Grants to pay for college. But ultimately doesn’t that just raise the cost of college because there is a certain amount that’s taken care of by the government?

JK: I think that there have been studies that have looked at this; there is not a lot of evidence that Pell Grants raise college tuition. Normally when people talk about the problem of college cost, a lot of people have in mind the $40,000 a year that elite private colleges charge. The Pell Grant is less than $6,000. So taking a Pell Grant from $5,300 to $5,700 is not going to have a big impact on the prices charged by those elite colleges. Now, that said, the President is definitely focused on the question of college tuition. And he has said that colleges have a responsibility to remember their mission and provide quality education at an affordable price.

WM: Does that have any policy implications?

JK: Historically the federal role has been providing student aid. There may be more things that we can do. We are in the process of creating new disclosures around college costs; those were enacted by Congress in 2008. We will be making information available on which colleges will be increasing tuition most. We hope that kind of transparency will help students and families make good decisions.

WM: How about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)? I feel like it’s been 4 or 5 administrations in which people have been talking about how long and complicated FAFSA is. Administrators have been making only minor changes every once and a while.

JK: I think we’re making some progress. There are over 150 questions on the form. The complexity of it has created a few problems. First of all, we now have nearly 20 million people a year filling out the FAFSA, so that’s 20 million headaches created by the complexity of the form. There is also some evidence that the students enrolled in college don’t get the student aid they’re eligible for; a study by the American Council on Education estimated that there are million students eligible for Pell Grants who haven’t applied. Evidence indicates that the complexity of FAFSA is at least a factor there.

WM: Talk to me a little about what Obama would like to do.

JK: One thing our Department has already done is create “skip logic,” which means we are tailoring the form to student’s individual circumstances. So, for example, if we know you are older than 24, the [automated computer] FAFSA will automatically skip all the questions that only apply to younger students such as parent’s income.

That was one problem we had in the past: people didn’t know which questions applied to them, so they ended submitting a bunch of information [the Department] didn’t need. Depending on individual circumstances, that can bring significant reductions.

The second thing we’ve done is work with the IRS to make available people’s tax information. So this is available now to some students and we’ll be making it available to more students as the year goes on. And that will allow them to automatically pre-fill their form with their tax information. They don’t have to go digging up their tax return.

WM: What is the time frame for that?

JK: We started it in January for some students. We started it for people applying in the current academic year, 2009-2010. We will be expanding it this fall for people applying for the 2010-2011 academic year.

The third thing we’re doing is to propose legislation to remove questions from the form. It’s approximately two dozen that we’ve got to get Congress to remove. This has to go through legislation because the questions are pieces of the financial aid eligibility formula.

WM: Could you talk a little about the gainful employment rule for the for-profit schools? I know you can’t tell me what the plans are, but everyone’s wondering why it wasn’t introduced along with everything else.

JK: Yeah, I’m limited in what I can say about it because of where we are with it.

WM: Which I totally understand.

JK: This piece the secretary of education thinks is very important. We wanted to take our time and do some careful analysis. The other pieces were ready to move forward. We didn’t think it made sense to hold them up. But we wanted to make sure we looked at all the corners of the gainful employment role. So that’s what we’re doing now. And we’ll be moving it forward in the near future.

WM: What’s the time frame for that?

JK: Our goal is to have it published as a proposed rule in the coming weeks and to have it finalized by the end of October so it can be effective next July.

WM: Because you’re following Robert Shireman, everyone’s wondering how you feel about for-profit schools. Speak a little about for-profit schools.

JK: I think there are a lot of high quality trade schools and for-profit schools. Some of them have done some good work in reaching out to students and enrolling them in college and helping them complete and providing quality education. At the same time, it is a sector that has been prone to some abuses in the past.

WM: It seems to me that looking at this over the long term, depending on whose administration it is, we get a gigantic growth in for-profit and then they get scaled back. Will this happen indefinitely? This doesn’t happen with other schools.

JK: I don’t if it has something to do with the change in administrations.

WM: Well, the woman who was assistant secretary for postsecondary education during the Bush administration, Sally Stroup, used to be a lobbyist for the Apollo Group.

JK: There was a big wave of scandals in the late 1980s and early 1990s that prompted Congress to pass some tough consumer regulations and they had a big impact, default rates came way down. I think those regulations were effective for a while. As we entered the 2000s and there was new growth in that field, I think due to the growth in online education, there may have been more abuses in the for-profit industry.

WM: Some people talk about online education as if it’s going to bring access to everyone. But there’s also a concern about real quality. Talk to me about online education and higher education.

JK: Good online education can be very good. The Department did an analysis on the best work that has been done studying online education a year ago and that study concluded that the best online education is competitive with traditional classroom instruction. It found that the most effective form is a hybrid, where you’re combining online with in-class elements. In a great majority of online education, it’s like anything – there are some high quality examples, but in other cases it’s a little harder to tell. One very exciting online application is the cognitive tutor, where online programs can customize the instruction to an individual student and make it interactive to test if a student is mastering a concept or go back and teach it a second way. There really is a great deal of potential here if it is done well.

WM: Is there any specific initiative with regard to online education?

JK: We have proposed what is called an online skills laboratory that would develop high quality course materials to help people see what is possible. That material would be open-source so people can take it, share it and build on the material.

WM: What is the role of the Department of Education in ensuring that online education is high quality? It’s so cheap and easy for anyone to do it, how can the department make it effective?

JK: Post-secondary institutions are overseen by “the triad”: the first two are accreditation, state oversight. The third component is that at the Department of Education we try to look at financial soundness of an institution, default rates, gainful employment, etc. But we don’t go into an individual institution and attempt to assess its quality.

WM: A common DC move is to rotate between think tanks, government, and journalism. Can you explain to me how you approach the different nature between one job and another? The difference between the conversation we’re having here and your role at the Center for American Progress where you were writing articles.

JK: I think the jobs are not dissimilar. Both jobs are filled with smart, well-meaning people that I was fortunate to work with. You spend a lot of time thinking about policy problems, trying to analyze possible solutions. In that case, I spent more time writing papers; in this case I spend more time sitting in meetings. But they are pretty similar. Similar groups of people and similar roles. [Image courtesy the U.S. Department of Education]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer