Following up on ideas introduced by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address last week, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held an initial hearing Thursday to further explore how to make college more affordable.

In his speech to Congress, Obama emphasized the importance of higher education in America’s future competitiveness and called on states to prioritize higher education in their budgets. Later in the week, the U.S. Department of Education announced a Race To The Top program for college affordability and completion, giving states and schools the opportunity to compete for $1 billion in federal funding if they commit to reforms that reduce tuition and facilitate achievement. The administration also introduced a First in the World grant program, proposing $55 million to encourage innovation.

Senators on the HELP committee questioned U.S. Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter about the specifics of the president’s plans, as the administration looks for the legislative backing to initiate its proposals before the president’s budget is released on Feb. 13. Kanter reiterated Obama’s urging that states spend more money on higher education and touted the White House’s success thus far in keeping college costs under control. Since 2006, she said, the net price of a four-year degree has increased by $170, while the net price of a two-year degree from a community college has fallen by $840. She repeated the president’s push to reform federal campus-based student aid by rewarding schools that keep costs under control.

When pressed by the committee, though, Kanter offered few additional details beyond those released by the administration when the programs were initially announced. She pointed to the White House’s website, which hosts a draft of the College Scorecard -- a document that would inform students and families about costs, graduation rates and potential earnings at various institutions -- available for public comment. Asked to provide a specific to-do list for states, Kanter referenced the College Completion Toolkit released by the Education Department last March. The announcement about the Race To The Top program also included a broad outline of what states and schools would be required to demonstrate in their applications.

Kanter also said that, although the administration has requested $1 billion initially for the first year of higher education’s Race To The Top, the department views it as a “multi-year effort.”

Several senators expressed concern that additional federal intervention could have an unintended detrimental effect on colleges and universities by imposing unrealistic mandates on them. “We’re concerned that regulation leads to the strangulation of innovation,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) theorized that his state, which has historically led the nation in providing support for higher education, could be penalized because of that past success if it is unable to achieve potential federal requirements for increased spending.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the HELP committee, said that Thursday’s hearing would be the first of many in exploring the ideas proposed by Obama. Despite some differences in how to achieve those goals, senators from both parties acknowledged the need to stem the exploding cost of higher education. Harkin ran down a list of unsettling statistics, observing that student loan debt is expected to soon exceed $1 trillion and has surpassed credit card debt for the first time.

“A college education is moving beyond the reach of millions of Americans,” he warned.