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Senator Patty Murray said Thursday that an overhaul of the Higher Education Act should tackle college affordability directly by addressing state investment in public colleges and boosting federal spending on need-based aid programs like Pell Grants.

Murray, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate's education committee, argued that even when college students receive federal grant aid, it covers a diminishing proportion of the total cost of college -- meaning more low-income and minority students in particular are forced to take out student loans.

“Everyone who wants to go to college -- whether it’s a two- or four-year degree -- should have the choice to do so and shouldn’t be saddled with debt as a result,” she said.

Murray was speaking at the Center for American Progress, where she laid out her broad goals for reauthorizing the federal higher ed law. Her speech was partially in response to priorities outlined weeks earlier by Senator Lamar Alexander, the GOP chairman of the education committee. Alexander said his key concerns were simplifying the federal student aid system, streamlining loan repayment and holding colleges accountable with a single borrower-repayment benchmark.

Murray, by contrast, argued that Congress shouldn’t just make it easier to get student aid but also should give more money to those students.

She said she wants to improve access to higher education in part by steering more funding to historically black colleges and universities, as well as to other institutions that serve underrepresented students. Murray also called for an end to predatory practices that leave college students worse off, and she said she wants to address an “epidemic” of campus sexual assault, suggesting that a Betsy DeVos Title IX proposal should be scrapped.

The speech contained few specifics but signaled key issues where Senate Democrats would devote energy on a higher ed law. Murray signaled that she wants to think big on reauthorization, viewing the legislation as an opportunity to recommit the federal government and states to providing opportunities for low-income college students.

“We must negotiate a comprehensive reauthorization that truly addresses the full spectrum of issues students are facing today,” she said.

Pushing for More State Investment

Murray’s call for a partnership between the federal government and the states reflected a growing recognition among many in Washington that spending more on aid like Pell Grants will have a limited impact on the cost of attending public colleges if state support diminishes.

"I just don’t think there is a way forward to actually make college affordable for students that does not engage states to encourage them to fund higher education," said ​Zakiya Smith Ellis, New Jersey's secretary of higher education, said in comments immediately after the speech.

Lawmakers, academics and higher ed organizations recently have offered various proposals for state-federal partnerships. For example, Rob Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, called for such a program in Senate testimony last year, arguing it could help reverse state disinvestment in higher education spending during the past decade. Anderson said per-student state funding declined by 26 percent from 2008 to 2012, roughly $2,000 per student.

“Today, we have only recovered half of that lost investment,” he said in an email.

Free-college bills introduced by Senators Bernie Sanders and Brian Schatz, as well as a proposal from the Center for American Progress last year, included state matching requirements for new federal spending.

Recent research has found that a 10 percent increase in state spending at community colleges increased degree completion by 10 percent.

Murray said those kinds of proposals may not be included in a bipartisan HEA reauthorization. Yet she said, “We still have a significant opportunity to take a big step in the right direction, and to make a significant down payment toward providing real opportunities for future students.”

The federal government should also help borrowers who are struggling with student debt by fixing loan-forgiveness programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness and improving the effectiveness of federal loan servicing, she said. However, Murray appeared to hint that she was not on board with an Alexander proposal to have student loan payments automatically deducted from borrowers’ paychecks. Lawmakers should provide borrowers with real relief, she said, "not just prioritize their student loan payments over all their other expenses."

Looming Accountability Fight?

Murray didn’t specify how Congress should hold low-quality college programs accountable. But in recent years, a debate has taken shape in which Republicans have argued all institutions should have to meet the same standards and Democrats have insisted on strengthening or reinforcing the rules that apply primarily to for-profit colleges, which Murray identified as troublesome in her remarks.

“One of the root causes of unaffordable debt is low-quality programs or colleges that churn out students -- or require them to take out too much debt without providing them with the support and credentials of value to get good-paying jobs,” she said. “We need only look at the stories of Corinthian Colleges, ITT Tech, Education Corporation of America and so many other large, predatory for-profit colleges to know that the HEA needs to respond to what is happening to students today.”

A staff white paper released by Alexander’s office last year suggested dropping two of the standards targeting for-profit colleges -- the so-called 90-10 and gainful-employment rules -- and suggested it was unfair to apply rules based solely on an institution's tax status. And the accountability approach Alexander proposed in February would apply the same loan-repayment benchmark to all higher ed programs, regardless of the type of institution.

Whether the two senators can reach an understanding on accountability rules could determine if there’s a deal to be struck at all on higher ed legislation. And their statements so far indicate a divide that will likely be a major part of negotiations.

The fact that both lawmakers have identified accountability as a key priority is a significant shift in itself, however. For years the higher education system has been "largely unaccountable to anyone," said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at New America's education policy program.

Responding to Murray’s remarks, Alexander said he was encouraged by the progress of talks so far and believes a bipartisan deal can be reached this year.

“Senator Murray and I have been working for the last several years towards reauthorizing and updating the Higher Education Act. I always welcome and pay attention to her ideas,” Alexander said. “We have a good history of working together to find areas of agreement, and I expect that we will be able to do the same this year. My hope is that working together our committee can produce a recommendation to the full Senate before summer.”

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