NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has scheduled round table hearings Thursday on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the Great Society measure first passed in 1965 that provides funding and other resources to the nation's colleges and universities. Last reauthorized in 2008, the Act is set to expire this year. The round table format is intended to encourage the input of students, parents and other stakeholders.

In describing its importance, the Chronicle of Higher Education put it this way: "The Higher Education Act is the law that covers how federal dollars are awarded to colleges and students. It touches on everything from loan limits to accreditation, determining who gets money, how much, and when." The actual financing of the programs is left to Congress.

"It is my hope that this committee will produce a Higher Education Act bill in the early part of 2014," Harkin said in the inaugural hearing in September. That was five months and four hearings ago. With eight more hearings expected, a reauthorization of the Act by year's end could be something on a coup.

The hearings may be an opportunity to bolster federal initiatives that could be under threat. An example are the TRIO and GEAR UP programs, designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education. A policy paper that appeared last spring in the journal The Future of Children called for an overhaul of federally funded college prep programs of this type, recommending the consolidation of TRIO and GEAR UP and possible funding cuts.

The Committee will also examine the U.S. accreditation system.

In the 2008 reauthorization, members of Congress sought to hold colleges and states accountable for rising tuition and rein in abuses in the student-loan system—anticipating, perhaps, the Obama ranking system rolled out last summer. That ranking system may be an attempt to deliver what some say the Act could not. Some lawmakers—and their constituents—have started to question the value of a college education at a time when many people have student loans that will take decades to pay off.

Since the last reauthorization, there have been changes made in the way student aid policy has been determined. Some of those decisions are now being made beyond the Higher Education Act's purview. This could be a watershed year when the Act's future is defined. The hearings are Webcast live at http://help.senate.gov

--Written by John Sandman for MainStreet