The Senate's education committee will begin the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act next Thursday, the committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, announced on Friday.

The law, which governs most aspects of federal student aid, was viewed at the time of its last reauthorization, in 2008, as a landmark step toward reining in college costs and increasing accountability among the nation's colleges and universities. But critics charge that the most recent authorization has had little affect on affordability while creating more red tape for colleges.

Over the past five years, the U.S. Department of Education has stepped in with new policies outside of the Higher Education Act, including defining the credit hour, and Congress has altered the way student-loan interest rates are set.

Congress has held several committee hearings on college affordability in recent months. And in August, President Obama proposed a comprehensive college-ratings system tied to access to federal aid, as part of his own attempts to halt skyrocketing tuition and levels of student-loan debt.

Also in August lawmakers asked colleges to suggest changes in the act in preparation for the reauthorization, which by law is supposed to happen every five years but often is delayed. The suggestions have included reinstating year-round Pell Grants, requiring private loans to be certified by colleges, and accounting for risk factors among students when judging the quality of institutions.

Thursday's hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. It will be Webcast live at