U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was in the hot seat Thursday, answering questions about his agency's priorities during a virtual House education committee hearing.
Many of House lawmakers' higher education-related questions revolved around reworking the federal student loan system.
However, several Republican legislators also brought up concerns dominating conservative circles, including foreign influence on college campuses and the teaching ideas of critical race theory.
Cardona opened the House Committee on Education and Labor's roughly five-hour hearing with a pitch for President Joe Biden's spending plans.
He highlighted an almost $103 billion proposal for the Education Department that would significantly boost the size of the maximum federal Pell Grant award, and pieces of the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which would make two years of community college free and heavily subsidize tuition at four-year minority-serving institutions.
Many lawmakers who spoke during the hearing asked about the federal student loan system, including if and when the Education Department would extend the pandemic-era pause on loan repayments, which is set to expire at the end of September.
Cardona described fixing the student loan system as the department's "highest priority," referencing several times the appointment of Richard Cordray, a former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to lead the Office of Federal Student Aid.
The secretary also mentioned a desire to rework rules related to Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that eliminates the federal debt balance of individuals working in certain fields who make enough qualifying payments on their loans, and "borrower defense," which allows students who have been defrauded by their institutions to request to have their debt wiped.
The department recently said it would erase the federal loan debt of 18,000 former ITT Technical Institute students who were misled by the now-defunct for-profit chain.
Several Republican lawmakers also pressed Cardona about colleges' legal obligations to report to the federal government gifts and contracts from foreign entities worth $250,000 or more in a calendar year.
The Trump administration made that part of the Higher Education Act a priority, opening investigations into the foreign ties of more than a dozen high-profile institutions. Cardona repeatedly told GOP lawmakers that he understood the concerns around this issue and would work with policymakers to address them.
Republicans on the panel also brought up critical race theory, the teaching of topics on racism and bias that conservatives in state legislatures have railed against.
Several states have passed bills prohibiting instruction of such concepts. More than 100 organizations, many from within higher ed, published a statement last week opposing such measures.
Cardona said critical race theory has been politicized, and that he heard more about the term during the hearing than about other issues, such as educational access.
The committee's top Republican, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, of North Carolina, touched on the recent news that Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren was blocking the confirmation of James Kvaal, who Biden nominated to lead the department's higher ed policy efforts. Warren, according to news reports, wants to use Kvaal's nomination as a bargaining chip for the Biden administration to overhaul the federal lending system.
Foxx asked why Warren was directing the department "by proxy." Cardona disagreed with that characterization and said he was "looking forward" to Kvaal joining the department.