Political theater

HELPThis week I had the opportunity to testify at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.  The hearing was titled “Making College Affordability a Priority: Promising Practices and Strategies.”  This committee of the Senate, long chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts until his death a few years ago, has held a number of hearings on the topic of college affordability in recent years in response to concerns raised in the media, by students and parents, and by policymakers at the state and federal level.  The committee is now chaired by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, with Mike Enzi of Wyoming the ranking minority member.  The hearing came in the middle of a vacation I had planned in New York City, where I was attending a number of Broadway shows.  This was certainly a very different type of theater experience.

This was my first time testifying to a Senate Committee; my three previous trips to Capitol Hill as a witness were on the House side of the Capitol.  I was joined on the panel by three college presidents: Steven Leath of Iowa State University, Jim Murdaugh of Tallahassee Community College, and Thomas Snyder of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana.  Also on the panel was Carol Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation.

You can find my testimony and that of the other witnesses, along with video of the hearing, on the hearing website linked above.  While the three college presidents focused on what their institutions were doing to try to keep the price of college affordable for all students, I focused my remarks more on how federal, state, and institutional policies could promote – or hinder – college affordability for low- and moderate-income students.  Dr. Twigg talked about how her organization promoted the use of technology to help reduce the cost-per-student of a variety of college courses.

While there were not many surprises at the hearing, the one thing that caught me a little unaware was that there was not more criticism of colleges and universities for raising prices.  In my testimony, I described how research has shown that the main driver of price increases in public institutions is reduced appropriations from states.  While the research has shown this link to be very strong, I expected more push back from some senators about whether institutions couldn’t do more to hold down costs, rather than just increase tuition as appropriations were cut.  But there was relatively little discussion of this, and most seemed to accept this explanation.  This is in contrast to some of the hearings I’ve participated in at the House education and appropriations committees, where there was more criticism of the institutions.

As he closed the hearing, Senator Harkin mentioned that in the next couple of weeks the committee would be releasing its long-awaited report on for-profit institutions.  The committee staff has been working on this for about two years, and many observers expect the report to be very critical of this sector of higher education.  I will certainly be curious to see what the committee has to say, and what the response of the for-profit institutions, and their lobbying organization the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, will be.

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