The U.S. Senate kicked off its effort to reauthorize the Higher Education Act on Thursday with a relatively tame hearing on the regulatory "triad" that oversees colleges.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democratic chairman of the education committee, described the hearing as an opportunity to re-examine the three-legged system of states, the federal government, and accreditors, "and determine whether it is up to the task of overseeing higher education both today and tomorrow."
"Does each leg understand its responsibility to the other two?" he asked in opening remarks. "Does each leg have the capacity to perform the task that it's been given? And perhaps the most important question of all—where does the buck stop?"
Yet Mr. Harkin and other lawmakers steered clear of the attacks on accreditors that have characterized recent hearings, taking what Mr. Harkin called a "pragmatic look at the current landscape of higher education" to "delineate what is strong and what is weak."
That task fell to the four witnesses, who described some of the problems with the current system and suggested several ways it could be improved.
First up was Paul Lingenfelter, who retired this week as president of the association of State Higher Education Executive Officers. He argued that states, which authorize colleges to operate within their borders, have focused too much attention on "inputs" and too little on "outputs." He described a huge variation in the standards that states apply to colleges, and charged that some states were failing in their oversight of nonpublic institutions, while others have set overly high barriers to approval, to protect established institutions.
He recommended that the states "harmonize their practices," develop reciprocity agreements recognizing one another's approvals, and "resist the temptation or political pressure" to block competitors from the market.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, focused his testimony on the federal role of ensuring colleges' "administrative capability and financial responsibility." He argued that the Department of Education had been "uneven and inconsistent" in its enforcement of federal rules, and questioned the ability of its regional staff, trained to review financial aid, to conduct the complex analyses necessary to evaluate the financial health of publicly traded institutions.
Mr. Hartle also criticized the department for refusing to revisit its formula for calculating colleges' "financial responsibility" ratios, arguing that it has not kept pace with changing accountability standards.
He called for a "top to bottom" third-party review of the department's process for determining institutional eligibility for federal student aid, with a focus on "uniformity of practice," the "adequacy of staff training," and the "administrative and regulatory burden imposed on campuses," among other things.
Susan D. Phillips, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Albany, part of the State University of New York, argued that the current system generally worked but could be improved through better communication among the members of the triad, and better (but not more) data collection.
Marshall A. Hill, executive director of the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, a new organization, called for a "better segmenting tool," to focus the triad's oversight on weaker institutions. Poorer performers should be subject to more frequent accreditation reviews, and accreditors should develop "better, more graduated responses" to problems they uncover, he said.
He also argued for accreditors to make the results of their reviews "more transparent to the public."
Thursday's hearing was the first of 12 that the committee will conduct in preparation for the renewal of the Higher Education Act, the major law governing federal aid to students and institutions. Future hearings, Mr. Harkin said in his opening remarks, will examine ways to "increase the quality of higher education without sacrificing access, innovative approaches to improving student success," and "improving and streamlining the student financial-aid process."
The committee will also examine the nation's teacher-preparation programs to determine "whether they are producing the teaching force we need for the many reforms already under way in K-12 education," he said. And the panel will consider President Obama's plan to allocate aid to colleges based on measures of access, affordability, and student outcomes.
On Thursday, Education Department officials met with student advocates and leaders to get feedback on that plan. In the coming weeks, department officials will travel across the country to hold open forums, town halls, and roundtable meetings to discuss the proposed ratings, the department said.
Call for a Fresh Start
Mr. Harkin said his goal was to produce a reauthorization bill in the "early part of 2014," and he promised to collaborate with Senate Republicans in crafting the measure.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the committee's top Republican and a former secretary of education, suggested that the panel "start over," rewriting the act "not as an ideological exercise, but in the way someone would weed a garden before planting a new crop." That way, lawmakers could strip out the unnecessary regulations that are driving up college costs, he argued.
Such a scenario is unlikely, given the years of work and political battles that undergird the existing bill. Still, Mr. Hartle seemed open to the idea of at least scrapping sections of the law governing the triad, saying they had "attracted new requirements like a ship passing through the ocean attracts barnacles."
"We sometimes get away from what the central purposes are," he said, "and what we're really trying to accomplish."
By the end of the hearing, even Mr. Harkin was warming to the idea.
"We all know the status quo is not working," he said. "Maybe we should start from scratch."