Key White House Education Official Steps Down

James Kvaal, the quiet force behind President Obama’s push for free community college, is trading politics for academe.

Mr. Kvaal, deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council, is leaving the White House on Friday for the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he will be a “policy maker in residence.”

As Mr. Obama’s top higher-ed adviser, Mr. Kvaal has played an important role in shaping one of the most ambitious presidential higher-ed agendas in years. He drove efforts to develop a college-ratings plan (ultimately settling for a revamped College Scorecard), and he helped plan two College Opportunity summits, persuading dozens of colleges to commit to expanding access.

In his prior role as deputy under secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, he put in place the controversial “gainful employment rule,” continuing a crackdown on for-profit colleges started by his predecessor, Robert M. Shireman. And as a special assistant to the president during Mr. Obama’s first term, he helped simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, and developed the Pay as You Earn student-loan-repayment plan, later expanding it through executive action.

But Mr. Kvaal may be best remembered as the chief architect, and evangelist, of free community college, said Cecilia Munoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council and Mr. Kvaal’s boss. Since the president proposed the plan, in January 2015, Mr. Kvaal has traveled the country to push state and local policy makers to adopt it. So far, 19 versions of the plan have taken root in cities and states nationwide.

“His fingerprints are all over lots of things,” Ms. Muñoz said. “But the community-college proposal is the closest thing to being his signature.”

She described Mr. Kvaal as a “low-key” guy who is “extraordinarily smart” and “not interested in credit.”

Mr. Kvaal, she said, would be “walking on air” after meetings with colleges that were making “commitments” as part of the White House summits because he was thrilled about the students they would help.

“That’s some of the stuff he was most excited about,” she said.

A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, Mr. Kvaal got his political start in Congress and the Clinton White House. His replacement will be Katherine H. Kochman, an Obama-administration veteran who is chief of staff for the Domestic Policy Council.

Correction (3/10/2016, 3:18 p.m.): A previous version of this post incorrectly stated in the headline that Mr. Kvaal was an Education Department official. He was at the White House.

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