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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Hearing: “The Role of States in Higher Education”

“Since the establishment of state land-grant universities, our country has rightly recognized higher education as an essential public good. States have played a critical role to an affordable college education, through investing in higher education, being a key player in oversight, and developing strategies to increase degree attainment. 

“There is a lot to be proud of, but we must re-examine the states’ role in light of today’s challenges. The steady erosion of state investment in public higher education over the last few decades reflects a stunning abdication of responsibility on the part of states to preserve college affordability. Too few low-income and minority students graduate from college, and states can and must play a more ambitious role in boosting degree attainment among these students. 

“One of the biggest takeaways from our Committee’s hearings on college affordability is the direct link between rising college costs and long-term state disinvestment. When measured per student, state funding for public higher education is actually lower today than it was in 1980, adjusted for inflation. Public colleges have responded by raising tuition, leaving students and families to shoulder an ever-rising financial burden.

“Public institutions of higher education, which educate more than 70 percent of students in this country, are now approaching a historic turning point: for the first time ever, in nearly half of the states, students will be paying more than their state governments for their public higher education.  We must stem this tide and get states back in the game. 

“Today, we will also examine the critical role that states play in providing oversight and consumer protections in our higher education system. From abuses in student loan servicing to predatory practices at many for-profit colleges, we have seen state law enforcement officers fill a consumer protection void that has hurt students and student loan borrowers. Recently, we have seen a bipartisan group of nearly three dozen state Attorneys General, including one of our witnesses here today, take a leading role in standing up for students and taxpayers by undertaking investigations and initiating lawsuits to end these practices.

“States are also playing a leading role in developing innovative practices to help students stay in school and attain a degree. We need to help more states pursue these types of innovations to help more students complete postsecondary education.

“In my recently-released discussion draft to guide reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, I have put forward proposals specifically designed to get states back in the driver’s seat. We must find creative ways to incentivize states to invest robustly in public higher education and to help students, especially low-income and first-generation students, get through college. 

“We have plenty to celebrate as we look back at a half century of greatly expanding access to higher education. But new challenges today demand new solutions.  I look forward to working with Ranking Member Alexander and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that a pathway to the middle class is strongly in place for generations to come.”