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.

Latest Actions

Efforts to update the Higher Education Act stalled as the COVID-19 pandemic put Congressional discussions on hold. Prior to the outbreak, lawmakers were reportedly close to reaching a deal after years of failure. However, there is hope that negotiations will eventually resume in the 117th Congress.

HEA in the 116th Congress

  • Senate Action

    U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) in September 2019 introduced a piecemeal approach to update the Higher Education Act in the 116th Congress (2019-2020). The Student Aid Improvement Act, S. 2557, included 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 followed months of stalled efforts to reach a bipartisan deal for a comprehensive HEA reauthorization.


  • House Action

    Democrats on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee in October 2019 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 included provisions that 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 shared some key provisions with the Senate's package of bipartisan bills. Both proposals aimed to streamline FAFSA, simplify financial aid award letters, and expand Pell eligibility for incarcerated students and short-term programs—although the House bill excluded for-profit colleges.

    However, the House measure did not gain any traction in the 116th Congress's Republican-controlled Senate.




Congress Considers Higher Ed-Related Bills

Dec 10, 2020, 11:33 AM
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Summary : Lawmakers consider legislation to simplify FAFSA forms and advance two bills to bolster HBCUs and prevent debt relief scams targeting federal student loan borrowers.
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The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday passed two bipartisan bills that aim to bolster Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and prevent debt relief scams that target federal student loan borrowers, Politico reported.

One of the approved measures, S. 461, introduced last year by Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Chris Coons (D-DE), would codify the President's Board of Advisors on HBCUs and require federal agencies that run programs benefiting those schools to make more of an effort to engage and support HBCU participation. Agencies will also have to measure, track and report back to Congress on their progress. The amended bill now returns to the Senate for consideration as early as this week.

The other bill, S. 1153, approved by the upper chamber last week, would create federal criminal penalties for using another person's account information to fraudulently access Education Department computer systems "for purposes of obtaining commercial advantage or private financial gain." The bill would also require the department to educate federal student loan borrowers about debt relief scams and to proactively warn borrowers about potentially suspicious activity on their accounts. The measure now goes to President Trump for his signature, Politico reported

Additionally, House and Senate negotiators may be close to reaching a deal to simplify applying for student aid—a major priority for Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate education committee, who retires early next year. Aides to the House and Senate education committees from both parties "have been trying to reach a deal and appear to be close," according to Inside Higher Ed. 

Although lawmakers have yet to reach a final deal, a bill sponsored by Sens. Alexander (R-TN) and Doug Jones (D-AL) would reduce the number of questions on the form to 33, and many of the answers would be automatically filled from tax filings. The legislation would also change eligibility for Pell Grants so that it would take into account the size of student's families in examining their income. 

Senator Patty Murray, ranking member of the education committee, had been holding off on supporting the proposal hoping to use it as leverage in negotiations over a broader reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, according to Inside Higher Ed. However, Democrats now appear more willing to advance a separate simplification measure in exchange for smaller changes.

"The pandemic has had a profound impact on families across the country. FAFSA must be a tool to expand access to education, not a barrier. Students who need our help the most are facing the biggest burden in getting financial aid. We need to do everything we can to make their lives easier," Murray said at an education committee hearing in September.

The changes could be included as part of the spending bill being negotiated by congressional leaders, and they are likely to have the support of top senators like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Inside Higher Ed reported.

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Michelle Mott
Categories :
  • Advocacy
  • Financial Aid and FAFSA
  • Higher Education Act
Tags :
  • Debt
  • education department
  • Federal relations
  • fraud
  • hbcu
  • pell grant
  • student loans
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