Senators Question Obama's College Affordability Plan at Committee Hearing
U.S. Department of Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter faced tough questions about the Obama administration's college affordability plan and the lack of specifics at a hearing Thursday held by the U.S. Senate's Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
Highlights from the Q&A portion of the hearing. Watch the opening remarks here >>
The President's proposal would tie the campus-based student aid allocation formula to institutions' ability to keep college costs down, implement a new competitive grant program (similar to the Race to the Top program) to reward states that institute higher education funding and policies that reduce costs for students, create a College Scorecard for families to evaluate and compare institutions, and mandate a standardized financial aid award letter.
The administration is expected to release more details about the plan on Feb. 13 when it issues the President's 2013 budget request. Thursday's "Innovations in College Affordability" hearing revealed some frustration from members of Congress regarding the lack of detail and what some perceive as federal overreach.
"We're concerned that regulation leads to strangulation of innovation of higher [education], where the money goes into compliance, rather than help the students or holding costs down," Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said.
Kanter said that the Department of Education has an eye on reducing regulatory burden and has been soliciting feedback and ideas from members of the higher education community on how the language and metrics for the President's plan should look.
"To assess value, the President is proposing that we look at cost, we look at service, especially to the most needy and disadvantaged students, and outcomes, like loan repayment and college completion rates," Kanter said.
The Department is also looking to improve transparency and accountability on college prices through a "college scorecard" and a standardized federal financial aid award letter. NASFAA continues to advocate for a model award letter that gives institutions some flexibility to customize the letter for their unique student populations. During the hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) said he would like Congress to give the Department authority to mandate a standardized letter.
"I understand that you don't have statutory authority to require colleges to do this," Franken said to Kanter. "I'd like to work with you to fix that."
The hearing became particularly heated when Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) asked Kanter if the proposed Race to the Top program for higher education would penalized states that reduce higher education spending, even if the spending was relatively high compared to other states. Kanter was unable to provide sufficient details to satisfy Burr's inquiry.
"If states are making efforts to actually put in place what we hope would be a long-term set of policy proposals to stabilize tuition over time, I think that would be of great benefit to students," Kanter said.
Education Sector Education Policy Director Kevin Carey testified that there is little evidence to support the argument that the cost of compliance with reasonable regulations is driving college costs up. Rather, he said the real problem with regulations is that it is keeping low-price competitors out of the higher education market and stalling innovation.
Proposals for Innovation in College Affordability
Expert panelists at the hearing presented innovative ideas for a more diverse postsecondary education model that would direct more funding and support to nontraditional students and nontraditional programs to improve college access and completion.
Carey proposed a three-pronged solution focused on price innovation:
- Bypass the existing accreditation system, which is stacked against innovation, and allow high-quality, low-cost entrepreneurs who are willing to be transparent about and accountable for quality access to the federal financial aid system.
- Create more transparency in the higher education market by actively providing students, parents, and guidance counselors with consumer information about college prices, learning results, graduation rates, and employment outcomes.
- Reward states that implement a comprehensive higher education reform agenda that encourages greater college completion, innovation, and investment in higher learning.
Western Governors University President Robert W. Mendenhall proposed incentives for innovation that would tie some relief of administrative burden in financial aid to an institution's participation in innovative experiments.
Mendenhall recommended that Congress consider a "Demonstration Project" that would allow waivers of current financial aid rules to allow institutions to try new things and explore and evaluate new models before implementing them nationally, such as the use of "performance triggers" for disbursing financial aid.
"This project could also help determine the types of new regulations and/or legislation needed to support competency-based education, in other words, measuring learning rather than time," Mendenhall said.
Most of the panelists agreed that new strategies and models to accelerate college completion will remain limited so long as there are not enough resources to invest in and incentivize change.
"We need innovation in both cost and price to fix the affordability problem. Now some colleges will tell you there is no way to reduce cost without harming the quality of education they provide. This is not true - we know that we can reduce cost and maintain quality, because some of them are doing it right now," panelist Education Sector Education Policy Director Kevin Carey said.
While Carey acknowledged that many states have slashed higher education budgets, resulting in tuition hikes that are not the fault of universities, he noted that "for thirty years, colleges have raised prices beyond inflation in good times and bad. Colleges do this because they want to, and because, in the current policy environment, they can."
"We can't change colleges' desire for money from tuition increases, which is useful for buying prestige and other things they covet," Carey said. "We can change their ability to recklessly increase tuition."
Thursday's hearing marks an early attempt by the Senate committee to address the President's proposal. Education Under Secretary Kanter said the Department and the administration are looking to the committee and members of Congress for ideas on drafting the proposal into legislation.
"As the composition of our higher-education student body changes, and as what we used to call ‘non-traditional students' become an ever-growing share of enrollment, we need to learn more about colleges and universities that successfully serve a diverse population and produce solid outcomes," Sen. Harkin said.