WASHINGTON -- Members of the U.S. Senate's education panel got a firsthand look Thursday at the president's new higher education agenda, offering both bipartisan support and bipartisan expressions of concern.
At a hearing on college affordability before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, lawmakers from both parties expressed agreement with President Obama's assertion that tuition growth must be curtailed to maintain access to higher education, suggesting that college pricing is likely to be an election-year priority. But Democrats and Republicans alike tried unsuccessfully to pry loose more details about the president's plan, and picked apart some aspects already made clear.
Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter testified but divulged no secrets about Obama’s Race to the Top-esque proposal for higher education, which would pay institutions that find ways to control tuition growth and increase value for students in much the same way the government rewarded states that improved their K-12 curriculums. Kanter said more information about funding for Obama’s plan will be released with the president's 2013 budget proposal on Feb. 13.
While consensus emerged that college tuition can’t continue to increase unabated, opinions varied about the proper role of the federal government in stunting that growth. Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, said the free market can help determine what tuition prices are sustainable.
“Higher education is a great example of how the market place works,” he said. When tuition gets too expensive, he said, “people choose to go somewhere else.” (The hearing also featured testimony  from officials of traditional two-year and four-year colleges talking about their efforts at innovation, and from advocates for alternatives such as Western Governors University.)
While those open-market principles are important to remember, Burr said, Congress sometimes has an important function in addressing college issues. “Where it’s appropriate for us to have a role,” he said, “I hope we play it.”
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, pushed for brisk action and clarity about the more specific steps the administration wants legislators to take. She said students are essentially taking out a mortgage to pay for college and aren’t always seeing a return on that investment.
“They don’t know whether they’re going to have equity or an albatross of debt,” she said. “We can’t keep this going.”
Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the committee’s senior Republican, said that efforts to expand grants for low-income students have failed to stop tuition growth and prove that legislation can accomplish only so much.
“If we’ve learned anything in recent years,” he said, “it’s that the government cannot solve this problem.”
But Obama says that government-supported reform is imperative . He introduced his agenda during last month’s State of the Union address, telling colleges they were “on notice”  and that they risked losing taxpayer support if they couldn’t control their costs and increase their educational value.
Perhaps sensing a popular cause to champion with an election looming, senators in both parties seemed eager to continue discussions on how to hold down college prices. Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, promised more discussion on the subject.
“This," he said, " is the first of many hearings."