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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Hearing: “The Triad: Promoting a System of Shared Responsibility. Issues for Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act”

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“Today’s hearing marks the kick-off of the reauthorization process of the Higher Education Act here in the Senate. The Committee will hold a series of twelve hearings over the coming months to analyze the many aspects of our higher education system and how it can be improved. These hearings will range from a more in-depth analysis of what we are all here to discuss today – the role states, accreditors and the federal government play in our higher education system – to examining ways to increase the quality of higher education without sacrificing access for students. We will have hearings on innovative approaches to improving student success, improving and streamlining the student financial aid process, as well as looking at our teacher preparation programs and examining whether they are producing the teaching force we need for the many reforms already underway in K-12 education.

“As the Committee’s focus on college affordability and the debate surrounding interest rates on student loans over the past two years have shown, there is a strong interest in taking a close look at postsecondary education and we have a great deal to discuss.

“The Higher Education Act was first passed in 1965 ‘to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in postsecondary and higher education.’ At the bill signing, President Johnson said that the legislation ‘will swing open a new door for the young people of America. For them, and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open--the door to education.’

“Forty-eight years and eight reauthorizations later, the landscape of higher education has changed but our focus has stayed constant. We will now take a fresh eye to the laws on the books in light of new challenges that need to be addressed, including rising college costs, meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse and non-traditional student body, exploring changes in the delivery of coursework, and assuring quality overall. As we approach this reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, it is with the knowledge that many believe the United States has a world class higher education system. Yet many low-income and middle-class families across this country question whether the higher education system is working for them. What has historically been the pathway to the middle class is now being called into question, and we all need to take a tough look at reimagining how this system can work better.

“We all know that there are no easy answers to these complex problems – we will need to look at ways to share the responsibilities of funding across stakeholders, and balance schools’ ability to be flexible and innovate with the necessary oversight students and taxpayers expect of their federal investment in higher education. But it is very clear that we must do better.

“Today we will examine a core issue of higher education – the “triad,” the term used to describe the federal system of oversight and accountability in U.S. higher education. As our witnesses will note in their testimonies, this system, and the roles of its key players -- states, accrediting agencies and the federal government – have been pieced together over decades. Each player has been tasked to perform certain duties when recognizing an institution of higher education’s eligibility to enroll students receiving federal financial aid. Historically, accrediting agencies have been tasked with providing educational quality assurance, states with consumer protection, and the federal government with oversight of compliance. In many ways, this interplay is what separates our system from the rest of the world.

“This hearing gives us a much-needed opportunity to take a step back, re-examine the system as a whole, and determine whether it is up to the task of overseeing higher education both today and tomorrow. I have raised serious concerns in past Committee hearings about the ability of the triad to effectively monitor a rapidly changing higher education landscape. In recent years we have seen countless examples of students and taxpayers shouldering the burden and the consequences of poor oversight. As gatekeepers of tax dollars, we have a responsibility – states, accreditors and the federal government – to ensure that the federal investment in higher education is sound. Make no mistake – the triad was developed to perform that responsibility and that is its sole function.

“We will have future hearings on each piece of the triad. But today we examine its overall function. Does each leg understand its responsibility to the other two? Does each leg have the capacity to perform the task it’s been given? And perhaps the most important question of all – where does the buck stop? It has not gone unnoticed that in a triangle structure, each player has the ability to point the finger of blame somewhere else. However this is an outcome we cannot accept. This is no time to defend the status quo.

"We are not asking these questions in a vacuum. Over the last two decades we have seen policy decisions that have both strengthened and weakened this system’s ability to effectively oversee taxpayer dollars. I think many would agree that if we wiped the slate clean today and drew up a new system from scratch, the triad may not be what we would have created. Yet it is the system we have, and we must strengthen it. I hope today that we can take a pragmatic look at the current landscape of higher education and delineate what is strong and what is weak. I look forward to today’s examination of the triad and its context within the history of the system overall, which will influence our thinking as we head into this series of reauthorization hearings. 

“It is my hope that this Committee will produce an HEA bill in the early part of 2014 and I look forward to continuing to work on a bipartisan basis 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.”