The importance of community colleges and career and technical education dominated discussion of higher education topics at the confirmation hearing of Miguel Cardona, President Joe Biden's pick for education secretary, on Wednesday.
The proceedings were the first step in approving Cardona, the chief of Connecticut's K-12 public schools, to lead the Education Department amid a health crisis that has thrown colleges' finances, and the safety of their students, into question.
Lawmakers appeared receptive to Cardona, with the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate's health and education committee indicating they would swiftly move forward with his confirmation.
Cardona would take the helm of the Education Department at a time when college enrollment has suffered, particularly among two-year schools, and institutions are balancing their desire to reopen campuses with the knowledge that coronavirus cases remain elevated nationwide.
His predecessor, Betsy DeVos, declined to put forth direct guidance to colleges on reopening campuses, leaving decisions to institutions that relied on directives from local and state health officials and inconsistent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Legislators touched on the pandemic's adverse impact on postsecondary education during the hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. After securing pledges from Cardona that he would work to "reform" the department's Federal Student Aid office, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pointed to the economic stress on student loan borrowers and reiterated a demand she made with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that the Biden administration erase up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt for individual borrowers.
A large portion of the meeting was devoted to K-12 schools. When higher education did arise, it was mostly in reference to lawmakers' desires to ease the pathways between secondary schools and community colleges and career and technical education.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., plugged a bipartisan bill that has been endorsed by workforce development groups and would create grants backing partnerships between community or technical colleges and entities such as state workforce boards and industry associations. Kaine referenced limits on the federal Pell Grant, which he and other lawmakers have attempted to loosen. Pell Grants can be applied to programs as short as 15 weeks, but consumer protection advocates are wary of expanding them to shorter ones with poor earning potential.
Cardona praised two-year schools multiple times, even before lawmakers brought them up, calling them the country's "best-kept secret." He said they would be vital to helping rebuild the U.S. economy as the pandemic relents.
Other lawmakers drew attention to the administration's moves to bolster sex discrimination protections. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said one of Cardona's first priorities should be to review the department's policies and practices to ensure gender identity and sexual orientation are protected classes in its rules related to sex discrimination. Biden, in a recent executive order, directed all federal agencies to do this.
And Sen. Patty Murray, the new chair of the HELP committee, said Cardona should move quickly to rework the department's regulation on Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination on campuses. The current rule, formed under DeVos, earned the ire of activists against sexual violence who said it reduced the number of cases colleges would need to investigate.
Murray said at the end of the hearing that she would schedule a committee vote to move Cardona's nomination to the Senate floor "as quickly as possible," though she did not mention an exact date. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the committee's new ranking member, called Cardona "eminently qualified."
The hearing was a sharp contrast from DeVos' contentious confirmation process four years ago, for which former Vice President Mike Pence needed to serve as the tie-breaking vote.
The Biden administration is filling out the Education Department. Michelle Asha Cooper, who was most recently the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, was named acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education.
Ramin Taheri, a former department senior attorney, will be chief of staff for the Office for Civil Rights. Melanie Muenzer, who most recently was an administrator at the University of Oregon, will be chief of staff to the Office of the Under Secretary.