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.




Democrats Seize Control of House, Republicans Retain Senate

Nov 8, 2018, 10:26 AM
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Summary : Divided Congress will likely make legislating far more challenging. Incoming House Democratic majority expected to increase oversight of President Trump's policies and frustrate Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's agenda.
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Democrats seized control of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday for the first time in eight years, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

The incoming Democratic majority is expected to take steps to increase oversight of President Donald Trump's policies and frustrate Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's agenda. Under Secretary Betsy DeVos, the department has worked to reverse or eliminate key Obama-era guidance and regulations meant to hold colleges accountable for the federal loan debt of their students and for how campuses investigate sexual misconduct, among other things. In January, the agency will also begin the process of rewriting a host of regulations governing accreditation and innovation. Democrats in the House will now be better-positioned to complicate these efforts by pushing to eliminate funding for the department's regulatory actions or holding oversight hearings to highlight conflicts of interest, reported the Chronicle.

With Democrats in control of the House, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) will likely become chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. The ratio of committee members from each party—currently, 22 Republicans and 17 Democrats—will switch, though the numbers may change depending on the size of the Democratic majority. Additionally, the makeup of the committee will likely shift, as well. Historically, approximately one-third of the panelists will be new to the committee, due not only to election wins and losses but also to retirements and new committee assignments.

Meanwhile, Republicans retained their control of the Senate. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) will likely remain chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Republicans will have to replace at least one member of the committee due to the retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Otherwise, few changes to the panel are expected, as all Democratic Senators who were up for reelection won their seats.

The divided Congress will likely make legislating far more challenging. Some education experts remain hopeful that the split Congress will make progress on legislation like the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, according to Politico. However, absent serious progress on a bipartisan agreement in the Senate, a new higher education law is unlikely, especially leading up to the 2020 elections.

Related Links

The Chronicle of Higher Education




Michelle Mott
Categories :
  • Advocacy
  • Higher Education Act
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  • Federal relations
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