Higher Education Act

The Higher Education Act (HEA) is a federal law that governs the administration of federal higher education programs. Its purpose is to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in postsecondary and higher education.

First passed in 1965 to ensure that every individual has access to higher education, regardless of income or zip code, the HEA governs student-aid programs, federal aid to colleges, and oversight of teacher preparation programs. It is generally scheduled for reauthorization by Congress every five years to encourage growth and change.

The HEA has been reauthorized in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1986, 1992, 1998, and 2008. Current authorization for the programs in the Higher Education Act expired at the end of 2013, but has been extended while Congress prepares changes and amendments.
  • Senate Action

    U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) in September introduced a piecemeal approach to update the Higher Education Act in the 116th Congress (2019-2020). The Student Aid Improvement Act, S. 2557, includes eight bipartisan bills to streamline the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), simplify financial aid award letters, expand Pell Grant eligibility for students in prisons and allow Pell to be used for short-term programs, among other changes.

    The proposal follows months of stalled efforts to reach a bipartisan deal for a comprehensive HEA reauthorization and illustrates Sen. Alexander's urgency to pass major higher education legislation before he retires after next year. However, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member on the HELP committee, and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), chairman of the House education committee, have repeatedly stated that they are not interested in passing legislation that falls short of a comprehensive HEA update.


  • House Action

    Democrats on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee in October unveiled a sweeping overhaul of the federal higher education law, aiming to cut the cost of college and increase access to college for low-income and minority students. The College Affordability Act would update the Higher Education Act for the first time in more than a decade at an estimated cost of $400 billion over 10 years.

    The legislation would:

    • Include the Reverse Transfer Efficiency Act, which AACRAO strongly supports and has advocated for over the past several years
    • Create a national tuition-free community college through a federal-state partnership model where the federal government contributes a per student amount at least 75 percent of the average resident tuition for public community colleges and states contribute 25 percent
    • Increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $500 and permanently index the award to inflation
    • Simplify FAFSA, including an automatic zero EFC for recipients of means-tested benefits
    • Create the Federal Direct Perkins Loan Program to provide an additional source of borrowing for undergraduates and graduates
    • Allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and certain other undocumented students access to federal student aid
    • Repeal the federal "student unit record" ban and require the Education Department to develop a system that uses student-level data to evaluate postsecondary outcomes
    • Change the 90/10 rule ratio (the percentage cap of Title IV aid an institution may receive) to 85/15 and expand it to include all educational programs
    • Require the Education Department to establish a Borrower Defense to Repayment process to discharge the federal loans of students who were defrauded by their colleges
    • Require the Education Department to establish a compliance standard that includes a debt-to-earnings threshold for training programs that are statutorily required to lead to gainful employment
    • Prohibit the Education Department from issuing or enforcing the proposed Title IX rules that the Trump administration published in November 2018, among other things.

    The College Affordability Act shares some key provisions with U.S. Senate Lamar Alexander's package of bipartisan bills. Both proposals would streamline FAFSA, simplify financial aid award letters, and expand Pell eligibility for incarcerated students and short-term programs—although the House bill excludes for-profit colleges.

    The House measure could move quickly through the chamber, albeit with revisions, but is is unlikely to gain any traction in the Republican-controlled Senate or from the Trump administration.


  • White House Priorities

    The White House in March released its first stand-alone proposal for reforming higher education, outlining the Trump administration's priorities as Congress seeks to reauthorize the HEA. The plan echos themes raised in President Trump's fiscal year 2020 budget blueprint and illustrates how the work of the White House, the Education Department, and Congress overlap on key issues. It also reflects the division between Democratic and Republican lawmakers over the federal government's role in regulating colleges and universities. The White House needs congressional action to enact its proposals.


Overview of the College Affordability Act 10.17.2019
The sweeping legislation would update the Higher Education Act for the first time in more than a decade at an estimated cost of $400 billion over 10 years. Read more

House Democrats Unveil Comprehensive Overhaul of HEA 10.17.2019
AACRAO Executive Director Mike Reilly discusses the College Affordability Act. Read more

House Democrats to Release HEA Proposal Next Week 10.9.2019
Those familiar with the discussions expect the bill to look similar to last year's Aim Higher Act, H.R. 6543. Read more

Congressional Caucuses Outline Priorities for HEA Reauthorization 10.2.2019
The lists include increasing college accessibility and affordability, oversight of the higher education system, and renewed support for minority serving institutions. Read more

Alexander Unveils Narrow Package to Update HEA 10.2.2019
The proposal follows months of stalled efforts to reach a bipartisan deal for a comprehensive HEA reauthorization and illustrates Sen. Alexander's urgency to pass major higher education legislation before he retires after next year. Read more

Key Senator Considers Piecemeal Update to HEA 9.18.2019
Lamar Alexander is expected to introduce a piecemeal approach to reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, after months of stalled bipartisan talks. Read more

AACRAO Advocates on Capitol Hill 6.27.2019
AACRAO Hill Day attendees connected with Congressional staff to share their practitioner perspective on how policy impacts their work on a daily basis. Read more

Congress Continues Work on HEA Reauthorization 5.13.2019
House panel discusses college non-completion and improving student outcomes; Senate education committee reportedly plans to release draft rewrite by the end of the month. Read more

Senate Panel Tackles Accountability in Higher Education 4.11.2019
Committee meets to discuss strengthening accountability as part of the chamber's efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Read more

Lawmakers Look to Strengthen Accountability in Higher Ed 4.3.2019
House panel holds hearing to discuss how to hold colleges accountable to students and taxpayers. Read more

Senate Panel Reviews Colleges' Response to Campus Sexual Assaults 4.3.2019
Lawmakers examine the process for how institutions respond to sexual assaults on their campuses to ensure student safety and rights. Read more

DeVos Testifies at Senate Hearing on Proposed Education Budget 4.2.2019
Lawmakers press Education Secretary on backlog of student debt-relief claims, argue effort to overhaul higher ed rules could hinder bipartisan negotiations on HEA reauthorization. Read more

White House Outlines HEA Priorities 3.21.2019
Trump administration releases its first stand-along proposal for reforming higher education as Congress seeks to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Read more

Senate Education Committee Tackles FAFSA Simplification, Again 3.14.2019
Panel hosts hearing to discuss ways to simplify how students apply for federal financial aid as part of HEA reauthorization. Read more

House Education Committee Examines the Cost of College 3.14.2019
Lawmakers convene first of five hearings on reauthorizing HEA. Ahead of meeting, House Democrats release report outlining their vision for updating the law, including arguments for the continued value of college. Read more

Key Senate Democrat Outlines HEA Priorities 3.6.2019
Senator Patty Murray, ranking member of the Senate education committee, outlines her broad goals for overhauling federal higher education policy. Read more

House Committee Plans Bipartisan Hearings on Higher Ed 2.25.2019
Announcement marks the formal start of an effort to comprehensively update the Higher Education Act in the 116th Congress. Read more

Higher Ed Experts Debate Likelihood of HEA Reauthorization This Year 2.12.2019
Congressional education committee chairmen discuss dueling visions for HEA overhaul. Panel of higher ed experts expresses little confidence in passage of legislation in the near future. Read more

Renewed Push to Overhaul HEA by 2020 2.5.2019
Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee, lays out his vision for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act before he retires. Serious differences with Democratic lawmakers remain. Read more

Education Committees and Higher Ed in the 116th Congress 1.30.2019
Chairmen of both House and Senate education committees signal that a Higher Education Act renewal is possible this year. Read more

Sen. Lamar Alexander to Retire in 2020 12.18.2018
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the chamber's education committee, has previously stated that he would also like to pass a comprehensive overhaul of higher education. His impending retirement could increase the likelihood of progress on the Higher Education Act reauthorization. Read more