Remembering Jeff Appel - Higher Education Today

As ACE Senior Vice President Terry W. Hartle noted in Inside Higher Ed this week, the late Jeff Appel personified the type of civil servant whose only goal is to make government work better for the public. Appel, who was director of Policy Liaison and Implementation at the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid before he passed away last month, was a good and friend and colleague to many in the higher education policy world. Below is another appreciation of his work and life, this one written by his former colleague, Katherine Sydor.


Charles Jeffrey Appel, known as Jeff, passed away on Nov. 29, 2019. He leaves behind his beloved husband and partner of 27 years, Kevin O’Regan, and is survived by his mother Shirley Appel; brother, Fred “Ernie” Appel; sister, Lisa McCullough; and many nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews, all who adored him. He was preceded in death by his father, Fred “Buddy” Appel, and brother, Mark Appel. Jeff is further survived by a large chosen family in the higher education community who leaned on Jeff for guidance, support, and counsel.

Jeff was born on Jan. 12, 1963, in Coolidge, Arizona, and was a 1981 graduate of Coolidge High School. He attended the University of Arizona in Tucson and graduated on the Dean’s List with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree—a transformative experience that propelled him to work in public service for over 30 years and, in particular, to fight for students from all backgrounds to have the means to pursue a higher education.

In 1985, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recruited Jeff out of college to work in their Boston office. It was in Boston where Jeff met the love of his life, Kevin. In 1997, Kevin and Jeff moved from Boston to Washington, DC, where Jeff continued his long career at GAO and completed a master’s degree in applied economics at Johns Hopkins University.

As an assistant director for GAO’s Education, Workforce, and Income Security team, Jeff managed much of GAO’s higher education research on student aid and other postsecondary issues, including college access and affordability. He helped sharpen understanding of complex issues, resulting in improvements to federal programs and substantial financial savings. During his decades with GAO, Jeff was recognized for his keen analytic skills, dedication to client service, and commitment to staff development. He received numerous awards for his outstanding leadership, including GAO’s Meritorious Service Award.

In 2007, Jeff signed up for a detail to work on the staff of the House Committee on Education and Labor led by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), focusing on oversight of the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The detail turned into a permanent committee staff position. During this time, Jeff worked on monumental pieces of higher education legislation including the once-in-a-decade (or more) reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008, and the Healthcare and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.

In these bills, Jeff worked to secure a significant increase in the size of the Pell Grant, which helps low-income students access a higher education; ensured federal student loans were available to students when lending markets seized up during the Great Recession in 2008; and helped create the modern underpinnings that allow students to affordably repay their loans, including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Income-Based Repayment programs. He always navigated the politics and policymaking process with grace and unparalleled intellect. He never wavered when it came to getting the best outcome for students and was dedicated to making the world a better place through public service.

In 2011, President Obama appointed Jeff to work at ED, where he eventually rose to be deputy Under Secretary serving Secretaries Arne Duncan and John King and Under Secretary (and current ACE President) Ted Mitchell.

At ED, as on the Hill, Jeff’s light was often the last one on, and his selfless acts of support and guidance for staff of all levels have left a lasting legacy. He helped the Department make the massive transition to 100 percent direct student lending, liaising with Federal Student Aid (FSA) on implementation issues, and was a driving force behind the move to “prior year,” which simplified the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Jeff continued his service to ED at FSA as the Director of Policy Liaison and Implementation beginning in 2017. Earlier this year, in September, Jeff won the inaugural “Keeping the Promise” award at FSA, which is dedicated to public servants who most represent the agency’s mission to serve students. He was both creative and diligent in finding solutions to public policy’s most daunting problems. He was cerebral and deeply empathetic.

For the last decade, Jeff and Kevin would escape DC every weekend to their Delaware beach house where Jeff would happily unwind from his work week by doing yard work and gardening. He was a teacher and a friend to many and is sorely missed.

There are no goodbyes for us. Wherever you are, you will always be in my heart.—Mahatma Gandhi

Higher Education Today