Blog: Deputy Under Secretary Avoids Controversy in Remarks to For-Profit Leaders

By Kevin Kuzma, Editor

The questions were asked. The answers were given. And … somehow nothing was said.

The performance put on by Deputy Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal while in the spotlight before a ballroom filled with for-profit education leaders was magical. Masterful. And intentionally dry.

Kvaal accepted an invitation to present and respond to questions from an audience (albeit via index cards) last week at the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities’ Symposium 2010 at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C. For nearly an hour, the baby-faced newcomer to the department was politely defiant while attempting to explain the logic behind the department’s new regulations, including the controversial "gainful employment" rule.

Naturally, Kvaal was the main attraction since the audience had spent the previous two-and-a-half days dissecting the flaws in the department’s rulemaking processes and final rule language. APSCU’s annual event is usually well attended by the for-profit sector’s most prominent leaders, none of whom have a soft spot in their heart for government regulators. Most of them believed Kvaal would give a slick presentation and then respond to questions from the audience graciously – without managing to say anything controversial or important. They were right.

Kvaal started by highlighting the positive aspects of for-profit schools. He matter-of-factly read a list of strengths he said the department associates with the for-profit sector: diversity, innovation, and capacity for growth. And then he followed up the bright side with the department’s concerns about high debt load and drop-out rates. After finishing his short presentation, he sat down in a high-backed chair to reply to questions from APSCU’s Brian Moran, who didn’t make it easy for him.

Moran asked Kvaal bluntly if the department had acted with hostility toward for-profit schools with its new rules. Kvaal responded: “I challenge the view that there is hostility."

He then explained why gainful employment targets only for-profits. The focus, he said, could be attributed to a Congressional stipulation that puts schools offering certificate and occupational training in a basket separate from traditional colleges and universities.

In several of his remarks, he tried to position the DOE as an organization that believed in the mission of for-profits, but that also wanted rules in place to ensure students at for-profits “received an education appropriate to them.” He held his comment there and left what he meant to interpretation. He didn’t go beyond it and accuse recruiters of forcing programs on students to boost enrollments, though the insinuation was there.

Kvaal and his colleagues would like you to believe that the department has a deep appreciation for for-profit schools. In fact, they want you to believe they almost trust them. But the debt loads and default rates so high they undermine the department’s confidence. In their eyes, gainful employment is a practicality – a simple measure “to make sure for-profit schools do well by making sure students do well,” as Kvaal said. The department would like you to believe these regulations are being put in place as nothing more than a safety precaution … for your own good.

Of course, this says nothing about the discriminatory nature of the rule, the thousands of layoffs it will cause, or how it will likely implodes the president’s 2020 education goal. Kvaal offered nothing that contradicts the hundred or so other reasons that people have found to disagree with the rule.

By his own admission, Kvaal offered up that many higher-ups in the department have community college backgrounds, but said that his organization wasn’t attempting to direct students away from for-profits. While it might be consoling to hear that, it’s also hard to believe. How could Under Secretary Martha Kanter not be at least partially motivated by her own professional background that includes a six-year stint as chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, one of the largest community college districts in the nation? Why should we assume they are working from other motivations when the department and the current administration have clearly shown favoritism to community colleges?

As expected, Kvaal responses were sharp. Only one of his remarks drew laughter: when he said he thought the new rules were written clearly and wouldn’t be subject to interpretation. But for the most part, he really answered just well enough to move on to the next question. I saw his presentation as more proof that the department and current administration are working from something like a script or playbook. And, they are very adept at training their staff about what to say. You could have plugged in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Kanter or former Deputy Under Secretary Robert Shireman and witnessed a similar showing.

Kvaal presented expertly at the symposium. He didn’t veer from any of the DOE’s stated positions. He managed not to say anything controversial or informative. Mission accomplished, I’d say.

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