WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Harkin called for public colleges and universities to “get back in the game” of making higher education affordable, especially for low-income and first-generation students.

At a Senate Health Education Labor and Pension Committee hearing Thursday on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, Harkin decried the “steady erosion of state investment in public higher education” that reflects a “stunning abdication of responsibility on the part of states to preserve college affordability.”

Harkin, D-Iowa, is chairman of the committee.

“Too few low-income and minority students graduate from college, and states can and must play a more ambitious role in boosting degree attainment among these students,” he said before hearing testimony from higher education officials from Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois.

Public colleges and universities, which educate 70 percent of students, are reaching what Harkin called a “historic turning point” in terms of affordability.

“For the first time ever, in nearly half of the states, students will be paying more than their state governments for their public higher education,” he said.

One of the biggest takeaways from the committee’s hearings has been the direct link between rising college costs and long-term state disinvestment, Harkin said. State funding for public higher education is actually lower today than it was in 1980, adjusted for inflation, when measured on a per student basis, Harkin said.

“Public colleges have responded by raising tuition, leaving students and families to shoulder an ever-rising financial burden,” he said.

Harkin and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., noted that the federal government plays a limited role in higher education affordability.

“There is one thing we all agree on,” Alexander said, “we need more Americans with college degrees."

“States must lead the way” in making post-secondary education affordable, he said. The federal government “is a minority investor.”

Alexander called for simplifying the financial aid application process, suggesting answers to two questions — “What is your income?” and “How many people are in your family?” — would provide most of the information needed to make financial aid awards.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., joined the hearing to plug her plan to allow people who borrowed money to attend college to refinance those loans at lower interest rates. She noted North Dakota has its own program to allow people to refinance their federal loans through a state program. It has refinanced more than $40 million since spring.

Alexander also cited what University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler called the “crushing burden” of federal regulation and the increasing burden on states of federal programs, such as Medicaid. In Tennessee, he said, Medicaid was 8 percent of the budget, but now is 30 percent of the state’s outlay.