Senators in Both Parties Agree: States Must Do More for Higher Education

July 25, 2014

Congressional hearings often feature bitter partisanship and acrimonious finger pointing. But there was mostly agreement on Thursday at a higher-education hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Both Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat of Iowa, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican of Tennessee, agreed that states should take a leading role in paying for and overseeing public colleges.

Senator Harkin, the committee’s chairman, reiterated his view that states largely disinvested from higher education during the most recent recession, driving up the tuition costs and requiring students to go deeper in debt for a college education.

"The steady erosion of state investment in public higher education over the last few decades reflects a stunning abdication of responsibility on the part of states to preserve college affordability," Senator Harkin said in his prepared remarks.

The solution, Mr. Harkin said, is to create incentives for states to increase their appropriations for higher education.

Senator Harkin and other Democrats on the committee also urged states to continue their scrutiny of for-profit colleges and, more recently, companies that claim to offer relief from student-loan debt.

Sen. Christopher Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut, said nearly half of all student-loan defaults were by students who had borrowed the money while enrolled in a for-profit college, some of which recruit students for costly degree programs that leave them in debt and unprepared for the careers for which they had been studying.

A more recent problem is the so-called debt-settlement companies, which say they can help resolve loan debts, only to charge borrowers large amounts to enroll them in free federal programs. Earlier this month, the Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan, sued two such companies, an action that could serve as a precedent for lawsuits by other states.

States in Action

While Senator Alexander identified a different culprit for shrinking state support for public colleges—rising Medicaid costs—he said he too expects states to take the lead in paying for higher education.

"Despite the more than $30-billion in federal dollars that go to students each year in grants, the federal government remains a minority investor in higher education," said Mr. Alexander, a former secretary of education.

In addition to freeing states from the costs of Medicaid, Senator Alexander said, the federal government could help states and colleges by reducing regulations for federally backed research on campuses and could help families and students by simplifying the process to apply for federal financial aid.

Eric W. Kaler, president of the University of Minnesota system, found something to agree with from both senators in his testimony before the committee. His state has cut per-capita spending on public higher education by nearly half since 1999, Mr. Kaler said. And like many public colleges and universities, the University of Minnesota has agreed to meet performance benchmarks and to freeze tuition and cut administrative costs, Mr. Kaler said.

Another witness at the hearing, Teresa S. Lubbers, Indiana’s commissioner of higher education, said her state had taken several steps in recent years to improve degree completion and control college costs for students. The state has cut the number of credits required for most bachelor’s degrees to 120 and will start to define full time as 15 credits per semester, instead of 12, to encourage students to finish their degrees on time. Indiana also awards a portion of its state appropriations based on performance in areas such as credit and degree completion.

Julie D. Bell, an education specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said states were already leading the way by setting policies that seek to improve college access and affordability, especially for the wave of low-income, minority, and first-generation students who will require a college degree in coming years.

"There is no question that higher education is changing—there are new students, new providers, and new concerns for accountability," Ms. Bell said later in an email. "States are tackling these issues in a big way."