07/20/2012 02:51 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

Three Good Ideas From Thursday's Senate Committee Hearing on College Affordability


Two hours in a Senate Committee hearing on college affordability, and only one political potshot! Ds and Rs seeming to agree on the basics about what needs to get done! It was exactly the kind of thoughtful discussion we want to see our elected officials having. But, alas, it was confined to a committee room packed with educational advocates and Congressional interns -- not the Senate Chamber.

Here was the snarky part about Thursday's hearing of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Five well-respected academic leaders had finished their testimony on the challenges of college affordability when Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., posed a pointed question to them: What exactly is behind the precipitous drop in state funding for higher education? Several had answers: the Recession, shrinking state revenues, perceived bounty from wealthy alum. None of the experts were right, according to Alexander, who served as Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. The correct answer, he asserted, is Medicaid. If states weren't mandated to fund Medicaid, there would be money for higher ed. His point made, the Senator left -- before Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, could set the record straight: federal law does not require states to provide Medicaid.

The more uplifting part of the hearing emphasized three themes and garnered bipartisan nodding of heads and thoughtful questions.

1) Colleges and universities need to adopt new business models, built, according to Thomas J. Snyder, on the pillars of quality and efficiency. Snyder, a former auto executive who came to Indiana's Ivy State Community College as President in 2007, was alarmed to discover higher education on a non-sustainable diet of "large grants, and state subsidies, combined with routine increases in tuition." His reforms at Ivy Tech emphasize increased efficiencies, redesigned degree programs, and an unwavering commitment to value and outcomes.

Dr. Jim Murdaugh, President of Tallahassee Community College in Florida, had a similar message. His college made a decision to hold tuition steady this year, while looking for every way possible to increase efficiency in operations and instruction. They are determined that any future tuition increases will only be used to implement strategies proven to increase completion and job placement.

2) To be more affordable, higher ed institutions must make smart use of information technologies -- both to improve instruction and target investments. Dr. Carol Twigg, President of the National Center for Academic Transformation, recounted her experience working with more than 200 colleges and universities to redesign large introductory courses, promoting better collaboration among faculty members and offloading mundane tasks (such as grading tests) onto software, leaving teachers with more time coaching and mentoring students. She testified that colleges redesigning programs this way have achieved an average of 37% in cost savings and improved learning outcomes by 72%.

Dr. Don Heller, Dean of Education at Michigan State, made the case for information management systems that can help state and federal officials target investments in educational assistance in order to get the most "bang for the buck." Dr. Heller's experience is that low and moderate-income students are the best investment.

3) Students (and their parents) need to do their part by being better informed consumers. Dr. Steven Leath, President of Iowa State University, cited alarming statistics suggesting that a significant percentage of college students do not even know whether they owe money for loans -- even more are unaware of how much they will need to repay. Financial literacy programs are needed on all college campuses and should, in fact, start with students and their parents long before they get to campus.

Senators and witnesses had several specific suggestions for students.
  • If you qualify for a student loan, do not apply for the maximum available amount unless you need all of it for tuition, books, and fees. Maybe a little extra cash for other things seems attractive now, but the extra debt could be a problem later.
  • If you receive a letter saying that you have been awarded financial assistance, make absolutely sure you know whether it is a grant or a loan. Apparently, award letters aren't always crystal clear about this; make sure you are.
  • Take charge of your college experience with an end goal in mind, and stay focused on it. Sure, many of us don't know what our major will be when we start school. But the sooner we get focused, the more likely we'll be able to avoid the trap many college students fall into: taking more courses than needed to graduate, at significant cost of time and money.

There's much to be gained from informed discussions such as these. Congrats to the Chairman, Senator Harkin, and Senator Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the Ranking Member, for putting it together. When thoughtful dialogues such as these carry over to the floor where the big decisions are made, we'll be that much closer to the skilled workforce that everyone agrees America needs.