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House Hearing Tackles College Affordability

Lawmakers in the House Education and Labor Committee are eager to address affordability in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

With the rising costs of college, federal and state assistance isn't doing enough to help students and graduates manage their student loan debt. Over the past 25 years, the cost of attending a public four-year college has increased by 81 percent while the median household income has only increased by 12 percent, according to a report released by the House Education and Labor Committee.

On March 13, the committee began its process to reauthorize the Higher Education Act with the first of five hearings. The hearings are designed to get a range of perspectives so democrats and republicans can work together to create a comprehensive and bipartisan HEA bill.

"The goal of our work in this committee in higher education is not just to write a new higher education bill, it is to pass a comprehensive higher education bill. Accordingly, we propose to work together in a bipartisan way that produces a bill that can pass the House, pass the Senate, and be signed by the president. Students, families, taxpayers and institutions of higher education deserve a good-faith effort to address the urgent challenges facing the higher education system," said committee chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.).

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who serves as the ranking member of the committee, echoed Scott's call for comprehensive legislation while also emphasizing the need to strengthen the Pell Grant program. "If we consider ways to make Pell Grants applicable to shorter-term, skills-focused programs that meet the needs of students and the communities in which they live, I believe we'll see a higher, faster and more satisfying return," Foxx said.

The committee heard from witnesses that span a wealth of experiences from Temple University, Western Carolina University, the Manhattan Institute and The Institute for College Access and Success. Jenae Parker, a student at Franklin University, also shared her experiences as a 29-year-old student.

Douglas Webber, associate professor of economics at Temple University, explained how the rising costs of college impact student debt ratios. According to his research, the costs of college (with financial aid benefits considered) have risen 75 percent at public four-year schools and private institutions. These rising costs come at a time when the average per-student support from state and local sources has decreased by a third over the past three decades.

Webber also found the purchasing power of the Pell Grants has declined over time. "In the 1970s, the maximum Pell grant covered 80 percent of the total cost of attendance at the average public school; today that figure is closer to 30 percent. While the proportion of students receiving Pell grants has generally increased over time, this trend is due to two different factors: increased eligibility of the program and a larger share of students from low-income backgrounds attending college," he said.

Alison Morrison-Shetlar, interim chancellor at Western Carolina University, shared how the North Carolina legislature has taken steps to invest more in colleges by providing student scholarships in recent years. In 2016, the legislature ordered schools in North Carolina to implement a fixed tuition program where each student's tuition remains constant for eight consecutive semesters.

The legislature also created NC Promise in 2016, which sets tuition at $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 per semester for out-of-state students at Elizabeth City State University, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Western Carolina University. The state pays the difference in the tuition cost, which added up to $51 million this year.

"Beyond the impact to individual students, this program will have a lasting impact on our state and its economy, because NC Promise is playing a significant role in increasing the number of career-ready graduates that our state needs to meet workforce demands," said Morrison-Shetlar.

In her testimony, Elizabeth Akers, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, advocated for all federal subsidies to higher education enrollment to be delivered through a "a single, means-tested grant program that delivers the most aid to the least well-off students." Akers also encouraged lawmakers to turn away from models that make college "free."

"Embracing universality in post-secondary education would come at tremendous financial cost but would also rob us of the byproducts of a competitive marketplace — innovation, quality and adequacy of supply," said Akers.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

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