CEDAR RAPIDS — U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin plans to use a series of hearings on the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act to put the brakes on rising college costs and student debt.

Although the United States has had a world-class higher education system, “increasingly students and families are questioning whether it is working well for them, especially whether it’s still affordable and a reliable pathway to the middle class,” the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee told reporters Thursday morning shortly before convening the first of 12 hearings.

“Student debt keeps going up and up and up,” Harkin said, leaving college graduates “embedded in debt” that prevents them from buying homes and cars and starting families.

If approved, this would be the ninth re-authorization of the Higher Education Act since first enacted in 1965.

From previous hearings, Harkin knows that the lack of support from state government is one of the single largest factors in rising student debt.

States have “continually cut their support for higher education,” Harkin, D-Iowa, said. As tuition goes up, students and their families turn to the federal government for Pell Grants and loans.

In Iowa, the state is covering 35 percent of the cost of a college education. Student tuition covers 60 percent, according to the Board of Regents.

The state’s share has fallen from 77 percent in 1981 to 50 percent in 2003 to the current level. Tuition as a share of general higher education funding has nearly tripled from 21 percent in 1981.

His committee also will look at President Barack Obama’s suggestion to tie federal support of higher education to outcomes and what colleges and universities are doing to keep costs down.

“We’ll look at all of these things and see how we can keep costs in line,” he said. “College tuition costs have far exceeded the inflationary rate over the past 20 years, and we've got to put a halt to it.”

I'm the city editor at the Quad-City Times. You can reach me at dbowerman@qctimes.com or 563-383-2450.