Education secretary elevates new deputy chief as college enrollment deadlines loom

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(WASHINGTON) -- Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will name LaWanda Toney as deputy chief of staff for strategic communications, as the secretary's team looks to tackle college affordability with enrollment deadlines quickly approaching.

"The message is clear: We want to make college possible for folks like the secretary, who's a first-generation college student [and] wasn't sure if college was possible for him," Toney told ABC News in an exclusive interview.

Pushing for adequate college and career training programs have been among Cardona's top priorities during his three years as education secretary. But the last several months have been mired by higher education woes, such as the Supreme Court's gutting of affirmative action last year and President Joe Biden's initial student debt relief plan introduced in 2022 (and struck down by SCOTUS last year).

Most recently, there were widespread issues with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form. The department has tried to simplify the form over the course of this year -- implementing the Better FAFSA Form -- and has ramped up operations this spring, fixing an issue that prevented contributors without a Social Security number (SSN) from starting or accessing the form.

"There's nothing more important to the Department of Education," Cardona said during a House Committee on Appropriations' fiscal year 2025 budget request hearing this week. "We’re working on this around the clock because we want to make sure our students have the information they need to make informed decisions."

However, the price of college has gone up over the years, according to higher education sources who spoke with ABC News, and some colleges never recovered from the 2008 financial crash. This comes as the annual cost of tuition has risen to nearly six figures at some institutions and millions of students are wary about their college prospects.

"We're really trying to make it so that higher education is more affordable and accessible across the country," Cardona told ABC's "GMA3" on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, higher education experts say college affordability is the top barrier to entry cited by students and families.

With Toney's strategic messaging, the department will work to ensure college is attainable, a senior Department of Education official told ABC News. "Time is of the essence," the official said, so the department is working toward what every young student needs: The choice to either choose their career or attend college.

"We want everyone to have the opportunity to further their education," Toney told ABC News. "Whatever path they [students] choose. If it's to go to a career, then making sure that high schools are set up to support them in that way. And if they choose to go to college, they have those options."

The daughter of college-educated teachers, Howard University shaped Toney, according to a source familiar, and Toney's experience at the historically Black institution empowered her.

Toney was elevated to deputy chief of staff from her senior adviser role in the office of communications and outreach.

Prior to her work at the department, Toney ran the strategic communications team at the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA). Executive Director Nathan Monell worked with her for years and said Toney spear-headed "college readiness and accessibility" strategies.

Thursday, April 11, 2024 at 3:50PM by Arthur Jones II, ABC News Permalink