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WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. Senate’s education committee formally began the process of updating the massive law governing federal student aid Thursday, its chairman laid out a straightforward plan: hold 11 more fact-finding hearings over the next several months and then produce a draft Higher Education Act by early next year.

But a number of obstacles stand in the way of that goal, put forth by Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who leads the panel.

Such a timeline would presumably put the Higher Education Act on track to be reauthorized before it expires at the end of next year -- a prospect that most observers, and recent history, suggest is highly unlikely. The last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 2008 took five years longer than it should have. In this Congress, the education committees are also mired in the process of updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Further complicating the timeline for the Higher Education Act were comments Thursday by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is the senior Republican on the education committee. Alexander said he had asked his staff to consider drafting a new Higher Education Act “from scratch.”

Such an approach is not “an ideological exercise,” he said, but an attempt to ease the regulatory burden on colleges that he said has multiplied with each recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Alexander said that the obligations for colleges that had piled up were stunting innovation in higher education.

Thursday’s hearing, the first of 12 the panel plans to hold, was focused on the on the multi-layered system the federal government uses to oversee colleges and universities receiving federal student aid. The system, known as “the triad,” involves a web of requirements placed upon institutions by the U.S. Education Department, state regulators and accrediting bodies.

At the federal level, colleges and universities have long complained that they are unduly burdened by an array of legislative and regulatory obligations that are often confusing and unevenly enforced by the Education Department, an argument articulated Thursday by Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

Before piling on any additional responsibilities for colleges, Hartle said, Congress ought to commission an independent review of the existing approval and eligibility process that institutions go through to participate in the federal student aid programs.  

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is taking place against the backdrop of an Obama administration proposal to develop a rating system for colleges based on student outcomes and value.

The Education Department on Thursday announced that it had begun an effort to gather input on how to develop metrics for those rating system. The administration plans to develop and implement a ratings system by 2015, but it will need the help of Congress to implement its ultimate goal of linking a rating system to federal student aid dollars.

That affordability theme also permeated Thursday’s hearing on the triad, perhaps foreshadowing a larger battle over how, and whether, to use the Higher Education Act to prod colleges to keep down costs.

Several Democratic Senators Thursday questioned whether the interlocking oversight triad of federal, state and accrediting bodies had gone far enough to keep down the costs of college.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, for instance, pointedly asked: “Whose job is it to ensure that college is affordable?”

Harkin, who has been supportive of Obama’s call for a rating system, also suggested Thursday that accreditors should be more involved in controlling college costs.

“I’m not sure accreditors need to be left off the hook on affordability,” he said.

The Obama administration has also suggested using accreditation as a lever to push colleges on affordability -- a role that many institutions object to as inappropriate.

Alexander, while not discussing the Obama proposal directly, did say he would oppose using the Higher Education Act to create any “mandates about ways to cut college costs” or “prescriptive Washington definitions of quality.” 

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