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Statement of Senator Harkin (D-IA) At the Senate HELP Committee Hearing: “Making College Affordability a Priority: Promising Practices and Strategies”

July 19, 2012

Statement of Senator Harkin (D-IA) At the Senate HELP Committee Hearing: “Making College Affordability a Priority: Promising Practices and Strategies”

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“As we approach the start of a new academic year, millions of students and families across America are struggling to pay the escalating costs of college.  Many students will be heading to schools that were not among their top choices because they couldn’t afford the steep tuition.  A national survey released earlier this week showed that 7 out of 10 families eliminated certain colleges from consideration based on their cost.

“During these difficult economic times, soaring tuition and shrinking real incomes are making college less and less affordable.  Over the past decade, state and local funding per student dropped by 25 percent while tuition and fees at four-year public schools increased by 72 percent.  Student debt crossed the $1 trillion mark, and surpassed credit card debt for the first time ever.  The news media are rife with stories of crushing student debt, including graduates with $120,000 debt making $225 a week working two jobs.  For millions of young people, these trends are putting the American Dream on hold – or out of reach.

“A national survey of recent graduates released this past spring found that 40 percent had delayed making a major purchase, like a home or car, because of college debt; about a quarter had decided to put off continuing their education or had moved in with relatives to save money.  Americans aged 25 to 34 now make up a little more than a quarter of all homebuyers, the lowest share in the past decade.

“There is no need to cite more of these grim statistics and stories today, but the message is clear:  College is increasingly out of reach for students from working families and our nation is losing ground in having a well-educated workforce that can compete in the global economy.

“One of my top priorities as chair of this committee is to address this college affordability crisis and to find ways to help curb the ever-growing financial barriers to college.  This is the second HELP Committee hearing this year focusing on college affordability.  As with the previous hearing, in February, I want us to move beyond merely bemoaning the severity of the problem.  Our focus will be on institutions that are breaking with “business as usual” to implement promising strategies and practices, innovations and initiatives to improve college affordability.

“Today’s panel emphasizes efforts at the institutional level that are proving successful in curbing costs, both for colleges and students, while improving student access and success.  These innovations can help inform our committee’s work in designing federal policy, and may be worthy of being replicated and scaled up to help America regain and retain its global leadership.  We will also hear some expert insights into how tuition pricing and financial aid policies can promote affordability.

“Big challenges confront our nation’s institutions of higher education, but the different approaches schools employ in response to these challenges reveal a lot about their priorities.  Our aim is to shine a spotlight on institutions that have expressly made affordability an organizational priority, and have done so without compromising, in fact while improving, the quality of the education they provide, as measured by student outcomes.

“How do some schools take an unsparing look at their operations to find efficiencies, so savings can be translated into minimal or no tuition increases and more effective student supports?

“How are schools working with students and families to ensure they are making sound financial decisions and accessing all the aid available to them?

“How are innovative leaders in academia realigning and reinventing their operations to establish a student-centered culture that permeates the campus from top to bottom?

“How are some schools realizing gains in retention and completion while bringing down cost per student?

“How do some schools maximize their financial aid resources by targeting aid to students with the most financial need?

“In short, how can colleges and universities make it a priority to strengthen postsecondary access and to boost the success of students from lower- and middle-income families in the face of state cuts, growing costs, and increasing calls for better results?

“But before we move on, let’s briefly take stock of the important steps we have taken on this front.  President Obama and the two last Congresses have an outstanding track record when it comes to making college affordable.  From boosting the Pell grant and loan programs, to historic funding support for states and institutions, as well as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, we have taken bold steps to enhance college access and success.

Earlier this month, President Obama signed the one-year extension of low interest rates on subsidized student loans that Congress passed with bipartisan support.  By preventing the doubling of interest rates, which would have saddled 7.4 million students with additional debt, we took an essential step toward making college more affordable.  But as we all know, this temporary relief by no means addresses the larger challenges facing our nation’s students when it comes to financing their education.

“To address the affordability crisis, all parties in our nation’s higher education model of shared responsibility – states, schools, students and parents, and the federal government – must be prepared to think anew and act anew.  Today we will focus mainly on the institutional side of innovation and reform.  But this should only be viewed as part of a comprehensive, systemic transformation that will have to occur in the coming years if we are to create an equitable, sustainable and high-performing model of higher education.  We have entered a period that will require us to do more and do better, but not necessarily with more resources, which means we will have to do things differently and in a smarter way.

“I look forward to working with our distinguished ranking member, Senator Enzi, and my colleagues on both sides of aisle to ensure that a college education remains affordable and within reach for all Americans, regardless of background.”