As Congress sets out to overhaul the federal law that governs higher education, Rep. Ben Cline, in stops across Western Virginia this week, is learning more about innovative ways to provide accessible and affordable college degrees.

At the Roanoke Higher Education Center on Monday, Cline, R-Rockbridge, watched students prepare food in the culinary classrooms and toured a realistic setup of hospital hallways lined with rooms filled with equipment used by nursing students for hands-on clinical practices. The center is home to more than 300 programs offered by 11 organizations, from major universities like Virginia Tech to local nonprofit Total Action for Progress. More than 10,000 students have completed programs at the center.

“I want to see what works, what doesn’t, and what the federal government can do to help make higher education more affordable and more accessible to more Americans,” Cline said.

Cline plans to take what he learns this week back to Capitol Hill, where Congress has been ramping up conversations over the past few weeks around the Higher Education Act, with an emphasis on tackling the skyrocketing costs that come with obtaining a degree.

Last week, the House Committee on Education and Labor, led by Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, launched the first of five hearings aimed at developing comprehensive legislation to update the Higher Education Act. Cline also serves on the committee.

“If we do not address the rising costs, not only will we lose our economic competitiveness, but a growing number of students and families will lose out on the benefits of a college degree,” Scott said.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 oversees federal programs such as student loans, accreditation and completion initiatives. Congress in the past has updated it every few years, but it’s been more than a decade since lawmakers have reauthorized it.

The launch of House and Senate hearings have begun against the backdrop of the college admissions scandal, in which CEOs and celebrities are accused of paying up to $6 million to secure slots for their children in several of the nation’s elite universities.

“Our education must be an engine of economic mobility for all students, not an instrument for preserving the elite status of wealthy families,” Scott said.

Lawmakers have been eager to upgrade the Higher Education Act now in response to growing concerns that the rising cost of a degree is too great an obstacle for low- and middle-class Americans. Those who do get a college degree are saddled with grueling debt and unable to fully contribute to the economy.

From 1990 to 2015, the median household income increased by 12 percent, but the net cost of attending college increased by 81 percent, Scott said. In 1980, the maximum Pell grant — the largest federal aid program, which typically go to students in the bottom half of the country’s income distribution — covered 76 percent of the cost of attendance at public four-year colleges, but today, it covers about 29 percent.

Still, despite skepticism of the value of a college degree, a new report from the House Committee on Education and Labor says it is still worth the money. For example, two of three jobs are filled by workers with at least some college education.

There are some areas lawmakers on both side of the aisle agree could be fixed, such as simplifying the Free Application for Student Aid. Where the partisan divide occurs is how much to spend on higher education and how to hold colleges and universities accountable.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said in a speech last month about the Higher Education Act that she’s amenable to developing legislation that doesn’t include the “free college” proposals pushed by several of the Democrats seeking the presidential nomination in 2020. But she does want a comprehensive plan that prioritizes college affordability.

This is a plus, says Cline, who is not in favor of the “free college” proposals. He wants to encourage colleges to control costs.

“You can play hide the ball with money and grants and loans to hide the true cost of college education, not just for the student but also for the university,” he said. “We need to encourage the universities themselves to take the initiative to control their own costs and not just encourage students to borrow more to cover the increase in cost of providing a higher education.”

Cline is familiar with finding ways to offer affordable and accessible alternatives to getting a college degree other than living on a college campus for four years and incurring more debt associated with housing and other non-tuition costs. When he served in the House of Delegates, he got legislation passed to create a $16,000 bachelor’s degree by working with colleges across the state and pooling resources like online classes. He wants to find ways to enable states to find additional innovative approaches to curb higher education costs.

Just this past General Assembly session, for instance, the budget contained additional funding for universities as an incentive to cap tuition rates for the year.

Congressional lawmakers have a few ideas for how they’d like to tackle the ballooning student debt dilemma.

White House officials announced Monday a list of education priorities, including recommending Congress put a cap on federal student loans to prevent borrowers from taking on unmanageable debt.

Cline wants people to be able to refinance their federal student loans when interest rates are lower.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate education panel, has pitched allowing people to enroll in automatic payroll deductions for student loan repayments.

The Higher Education Act reauthorization process has had starts and stops over the years after lawmakers failed to build a bipartisan consensus, but they are hoping this is the year for sweeping change.

“If we only tinker around the edges and do not take comprehensive steps to address access and affordability, we will fail to serve the students, parents and communities who elected us to serve them,” Scott said.

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