Washington Update

House and Senate Committees Hold Hearings on College Affordability

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On April 16, 2013, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing titled, “The Challenge of College Affordability: The Student Lens.” You may view a video of the hearing and review witness testimonies at this link. The following individuals testified:

  • Mr. Ethan Senack, Higher Education Associate, U.S. Public Interest Research Group
  • Ms. Derrica Donelson, Student at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee
  • Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, Associate Professor, Educational Policy Studies and Sociology, University of Wisconsin; Senior Scholar, Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study
  • Vivica Brooks, Student at Bowie State University, Bowie, Maryland

Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), in his opening statement, noted that for the first time the federal government is providing more student aid than the states. Chairman Harkin also noted that the middle class continues to be squeezed, with the average student graduating $26,000 in debt.

Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) repeated his belief that there is a direct correlation between the cost of Medicaid in the states and the reduction in the amount of state aid to higher education (Medicaid was 8% of the Tennessee state budget, it is now 26%). Sen. Alexander stated that the reasons for the increasing cost of college are that some institutions make inefficient use of campus facilities (noting that Dartmouth now requires one summer session for every four-year student) and others are experimenting with three-year degrees. Another factor, according to him, is the “barrage” of federal regulations—he said that Vanderbilt spends 7% of its budget in compliance. He closed by noting that student loans are easy to get but hard to pay back.

After the witnesses testified, Chairman Harkin asked about the Income-Based Repayment (IBR) program and noted that only 5% of students are taking advantage of it. Mr. Senack stated that in his work he has talked to Congressional staffers who are struggling to enroll in IBR programs, and that none of the staffers remember their exit counseling. Dr. Goldrick-Rab stated that it is not well explained in counseling sessions.

Other members of the committee had questions for the witnesses. Sens. Christopher Murphy (D-CT) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) both asked about the effect of allowing the interest rates on subsidized student loans to increase in July of this year. Mr. Senack noted that it is a big deal for students; the additional thousand dollars or so would be a significant burden on the income of those repaying the loans. Ms. Brooks also stated that it would likely require some students to take longer to complete their degrees.

In the House of Representatives, American Council on Education (ACE) Senior Vice President Terry Hartle was invited to speak before the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training at the hearing titled, “Keeping College Within Reach: The Role of Federal Student Aid Programs.” Mr. Hartle’s testimony provided a basic historical overview of federal higher education policy and drew upon that history to identify lessons learned for the upcoming Higher Education Reauthorization process.

The issue that rose to the top of the discussion, from Mr. Hartle’s statement and the testimony of the other panel members, was how to simplify the complex federal financial aid system, beginning with the application process: the long and complicated Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

No doubt, the issue of college affordability will continue to be debated in Congress in the coming weeks and months. ADEA will keep everyone apprised.

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