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.


The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in March held a hearing to discuss financial aid simplification, marking the formal start of the upper chamber's efforts to comprehensively update the Higher Education Act in the 116th Congress (2019-2020).

HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced in December 2018 that he will not seek reelection in 2020. Speculation is that his retirement at the end of the current term could increase the likelihood of progress on a reauthorization bill this year. The former Tennessee governor and president of the University of Tennessee has served in the Senate since first being elected in 2002. Sen. Alexander also lead the U.S. Education Department under President George H.W. Bush.

The HELP committee hosted a series of hearings on topics related to college affordability, accountability, access and innovation, and financial aid and transparency throughout 2018. However, negotiations stalled and the Senate has yet to introduce comprehensive legislation to reauthorize HEA.

House Action

The U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor in February announced a series of bipartisan hearings on higher education reform. The hearings focus on the cost of college; strengthening accountability; improving student outcomes; the role of community colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions; and innovation to improve equity.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) has said updating the HEA is a priority, but expressed little confidence that both sides of aisle would come to an agreement on key issues in the near future, citing vast differences in their respective higher education bills during the last Congress.

While negotiations stalled in the Senate last year, a Republican proposal to overhaul the HEA in the House, named the PROSPER Act, failed to garner enough support for a floor vote after a campaign by higher education groups, and others, to stop the legislation. AACRAO, the broader higher education community, and veterans' groups opposed the PROSPER Act. Congressional Democrats later introduced their own proposal, the Aim Higher Act, that essentially rebutted the major proposals of the GOP legislation.

After retaking the House in November, Democrats said they would move forward with a new version of their own higher education bill. The House education committee's Democratic leadership in March released its vision for updating the sweeping higher education legislation in the 116th Congress (2019-2020).

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.


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



House Republicans Unveil Bill to Reauthorize HEA

December 7, 2017
  • President and Executive Director Updates

House Republicans on Friday released a sweeping bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). The law, first enacted in 1965 and last reauthorized in 2008, governs federal higher education programs. Last week's proposal marks the first movement on reauthorizing the landmark legislation since the House passed a set of piecemeal measures several years ago.

The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act would:

  • Overhaul federal student loans to a "one grant, one loan, one work-study" system
  • Streamline income-based repayment plans to one program, as well
  • Simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
  • codify the use of prior-prior year (PPY) income data for the FAFSA
  • Create a "consumer-tested, mobile-friendly" FAFSA
  • Eliminate loan origination fees
  • Provide a bonus to Pell Grant recipients to incentivize completion
  • Allow institutions the authority to limit borrowing
  • Maintain the ban on a federal unit-record system
  • Codify the Trump administration's interim guidance on Title IX and campus sexual assault
  • Tie Title III and Title V funds for minority-serving institutions to their ability to graduate or transfer 25 percent of their students
  • Eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program
  • Eliminate the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program
  • Eliminate the 90-10 rule that prevents for-profits from getting more than 90 percent of their total revenue from federal student aid programs
  • Repeal the "gainful employment" regulations that seek to cut off federal funding to career college programs that produce graduates with large debt loads and
  • Repeal the borrower's defense to repayment regulations that provide debt relief to defrauded student loan borrowers
  • Repeal the state authorization rule for distance education programs.

Beyond that, the legislation would actually prohibit any future Secretary of Education from promulgating any new regulations related to gainful employment, definition of a credit hour, or from creating an institutional ratings system—even though the Obama administration’s attempt to do so was unsuccessful.

The proposed measure would also replace the cohort default rate metric (CDR) with a program-level repayment rate metric. Programs with three-year repayment rates below 45 percent would lose access to federal student aid.

Short summary of the PROSPER Act

Full section-by-section summary of the PROSPER Act

Bill Text

While we believe the legislation includes some practical proposals, we are concerned that other provisions would negatively impact institutions, students, and college affordability.

On the Senate side, the chamber's education committee held a hearing last week to discuss proposals to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the panel, announced that the committee's first order of business in the new year would be to mark up its own version of legislation to reauthorize the HEA. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate expressed their willingness to develop bipartisan legislation.

HEA Reauthorization has become an increasingly difficult task over the years. In the early years, lawmakers routinely renewed the act every four years. The most recent reauthorization, in 2008, was the first in 10 years. And the latest attempt will have taken at least that long by the time it is finalized, with each renewal more complex and complicated than the last. The now law governs the billions of dollars allocated to federal student aid programs, millions of dollars of institutional aid, as well as tackling issues related to accreditation, Title IX enforcement, and campus crime reporting, among many others.

As the reauthorization process moves forward, AACRAO will continue to closely monitor any developments and seek ways to work with Members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, to ensure that important programs and policies that promote student and institutional success continue to be supported.


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