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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Hearing: “Ensuring Access to Higher Education: Simplifying Federal Student Aid for Today’s College Student”

“Today’s hearing is the third in our series examining critical issues in postsecondary education as the Committee looks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.  The topic we’ll discuss today is of paramount importance, and is arguably the bedrock of federal higher education policy: our federal financial aid programs and their effectiveness in providing access to higher education.  Since the passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, the federal government has played a role in helping students fund their college education.  Now, 55 years later, we can celebrate much success, but we face significant new challenges. 

“A college degree, more so than ever, can be a ticket to the middle class.  According to new research from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project, college graduates are over five times more likely to move up from the bottom quintile of household income than non-graduates.  But while college enrollment overall has increased, the enrollment gap between low-income and high-income students has grown. 

“I’ve cited these statistics in past hearings, but I want to reiterate them again today: students from rich families are seven times more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than those from poor families.  It is estimated that, over the past decade, 4.4 million college-qualified, low- and moderate-income high school graduates did not attend four-year colleges, and an additional 2 million did not attend college at all.

“The reasons come down to affordability and access.  Many of the programs put in place through the Higher Education Act aimed to provide the opportunity to attend college for all Americans, regardless of background.  But with statistics like those I just cited, with so many of even our high-achieving low-income students not attending college, we clearly need to take a hard look at what’s happening within our system. 

“Today we have the opportunity to discuss the state of higher education access with a distinguished panel of experts.  We will take a holistic look at our federal financial aid programs.  We’ll discuss what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to be done. 

“As we tackle reauthorization, I look forward to discussing ways we can promote early awareness of our federal financial aid programs so that students know what’s available to them.  “We also need to examine ways to simplify the aid process so it’s more clearly understood by the students and families who use it.  Equally important is a discussion about the information students and families are receiving when they go through the college entrance process.  We spent considerable time in previous reauthorizations ensuring that information is available.  Now we need to discuss how best to get that information out to students and their families. 

“Simply put, our federal financial aid programs are an investment in human capital.  We need to do more to let all citizens know that we stand ready to help them attain a college degree.  Their economic mobility depends on it. 

“I look forward to working with our distinguished ranking member, Senator Alexander, and my colleagues on both sides of aisle to ensure that our higher education system remains affordable, accessible and results-oriented, both for students and taxpayers.”