Is a College Education a Safe Investment?

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Romesh Ratnesar: The Build Back Better Act passed last month in the House of Representatives contains significant investments in higher education, including billions in support for historically black colleges and universities and a new fund to help college students complete their degrees. However, some of President Biden’s key priorities were dropped from the bill, including making community college tuition-free for all. You’re the country’s top official on higher education policy. What do you say to advocates who believe this was the best opportunity to achieve free college — and now it may never happen?

James Kvaal, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education: This is the way the system works — the president proposes something and then you have to get it through Congress. I know that he fought very hard [for free community college] and if there were something he could do to get it in the package, it would be in the package. That said, this idea has come a tremendous distance since people started talking about it six years ago. It will continue to be one of the president’s top priorities and we’re going to explore every tool that we have to keep moving toward this goal.

RR: Some progressives are also disappointed that Congress didn’t take action to cancel student-loan debt. Is the administration considering doing more on its own?

JK: Well, we’ve done quite a bit already. There are people who are already eligible for debt cancellation — whether because they were cheated by their college, or they had a permanent disability, or they’re in a public service job — and yet often are not getting it. So we’ve focused on making sure borrowers are getting the benefits that they’re entitled to. So far, we’ve completely canceled the debts of more than 600,000 students. There are tens of thousands more who believe they were cheated by their college and have applied for their loans to be discharged. We are working through that as quickly as we can. We are working to permanently expand public-service loan forgiveness; we’re also making income-driven repayment, which ensures that loan payments are an affordable share of borrowers’ income, more generous and as easy as possible to use. So there’s quite a bit we’re doing on all fronts.