News: Federal Policy & Advocacy

House Education Committee Holds Hearing on College Affordability

Thursday, March 14, 2019  
Posted by: Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy
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Yesterday, the House Education and Labor Committee held the first of five planned bipartisan hearings on higher education. The hearing, titled, “The Cost of College: Student Centered Reforms to Bring Higher Education Within Reach,” brought together five witnesses to discuss the challenges students have paying for college, the role the federal government can play to alleviate that burden, and why college has become so expensive in the first place.

This hearing, and the four that will follow it, come as part of the push to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. The HEA, as it is sometimes called, governs federal higher education policy, including financial aid programs.

In his opening statement, Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) said that after a partisan approach to reauthorizing the HEA in the last Congress, the goal of these five hearings is to find common ground.

Ranking Member Virginia Foxx (R-NC) opened her comments saying that the high cost of college is not up for debate; it is a fact. She pointed out that if the price of a car had risen at the same rate of inflation as higher education, the average vehicle would cost $80,000 today.

With the opening remarks seeming in alignment, the hearing moved on to testimony and discussion from five witnesses: Dr. Elizabeth Akers of the Manhattan Institute, James Kvaal of the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) – an NCAN member, Alison Morrison-Shetlar of Western Carolina University, Jenae Parker, a student at Franklin University, and Dr. Douglas Webber of Temple University.

The witnesses discussed the challenges facing today’s college students, but it was Janae Parker’s testimony that brought these issues to life. She shared her story about dropping out of college several times as personal hardships arose and she struggled to support her family. She and her daughter (age 8, who joined her mother at the hearing) struggled with not having enough to eat and then lost their home. Ms. Parker said she blamed herself, and then went on to add: “But now I know that as many as 50 percent of college students are also dealing with food and housing insecurity. Even students attending elite private colleges are facing these challenges. More than 1 in 10 students are homeless. Are we all just not cut out for college? Have we all done something wrong?”

Several members of Congress were moved by Ms. Parker's story and pledged to help her; however, there were far fewer suggesting broader solutions or asking specific questions about approaches such as expanding wraparound support services.

There was a great deal of discussion about the system through which students receive aid and pay for college. Members of Congress mentioned several different ideas for improving affordability such as simplifying the FAFSA to help students access aid, investing in need-based aid, and streamlining the student loan repayment system to make repaying loans easier. NCAN’s federal policy priorities recommend that all of these actions must be taken together to improve circumstances for students. However, it is clear that the two parties are still far apart out how to handle loan forgiveness, particularly public service loan forgiveness. At the prompting of Rep. Foxx, Dr. Akers said she thought loan forgiveness was the worst perverse incentive to encourage overborrowing.

There was less discussion of why college is so expensive. Dr. Webber’s testimony touched on this topic when he discussed the impacts of state cuts to funding for public higher education systems and the role private-market salaries play in driving up the cost of university salaries (as professors and some employees demand competitive compensation).

Mr. Kvaal of TICAS outlined a proposal to create a federal-state partnership that would incent states to provide the first two years of community college tuition-free. This aligns with Rep. Scott’s proposal in his AIM Higher Act last Congress.

According to Rep. Scott, in the last Congress, all senators and over 90 percent of members of the House held a bachelor’s degree. He called his committee members to action saying that, “We, of all people, should not be discouraging students from seeking the education that got us here today.”

'Don't Stop Believin''

Rep. Scott clearly believes in higher education, so much so that he titled his 30-page paper outlining his priorities for higher education reform: “Don’t Stop Believin’ (in the value of a college degree).” The proposals, in short, are:

Expanding Access

  • Supporting high school students to earn college credits early.
  • Strengthening college access programs that provide services for vulnerable student populations.
  • Simplifying FAFSA.
  • Expanding access to high-quality short-term stackable certificates that create an entryway to further education.

Improving Affordability

  • Increasing grant aid to help students cover the costs of college.
  • Creating federal-state partnerships that encourage states to reinvest in higher education.
  • Improving the federal student loan system so that students understand their loan terms and are better able to manage repayment.
  • Strengthening institutional quality and accountability to ensure return on investment for students and taxpayers.

Promoting Completion

 

  • Improving postsecondary data infrastructure to help students, families, policymakers, and institutions answer critical questions about college outcomes.
  • Expanding access to multiple pathways, including dual enrollment and short-term certificates, so that students can complete college credits in quality programs that fit their needs and goals.
  • Improving remediation so that more students can earn college credits.
  • Investing in student supports like child care, mental health services, and tutoring to ensure students can focus on learning and skill-building.
  • Investing in community colleges, HBCUs, and Minority-Serving Institutions so that traditionally underserved students have access to the same quality experience as others.
  • Supporting campus diversity and ensuring a safe learning environment for all students.

Congress continues to do a great deal of work to move in the direction of a full HEA reauthorization, though the hot topic in Washington is taking bets about when a full bill will be agreed upon – before or after the next election. The Senate also held an HEA hearing, focused on FAFSA simplification and verification burden, this week. The next planned hearing in the House will focus on institutional accountability.