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 HEA Markup and Reverse Transfer Legislation

December 14, 2017
  • President and Executive Director Updates
  • higher education act
  • Reverse Transfer

The U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee convened on Tuesday to debate and vote on amendments and other changes to the chamber's proposed legislative rewrite of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

During the roughly 14-hour marathon markup, the committee considered more than 60 amendments to the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act. The panel approved the bill largely as written, adopting only a handful of mostly minor amendments. However, one major amendment—introduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and approved close to midnight by unanimous consent—advanced the Reverse Transfer Efficiency Act of 2017 (H.R. 3774). The measure, sponsored by Reps. Polis and Luke Messer (R-IN) and championed by AACRAO, would create a new FERPA exemption that would allow the sharing of student information between institutions to facilitate increased college completion rates.

Of the rejected amendments, offered primarily by Democrats on the committee, one would have attached the Dream Act to the legislation. Another sought to expand financial aid eligibility Dreamers. Other failed Democratic amendments would have repealed the federal student unit record ban, restored Obama-era regulations on for-profit institutions, and made Pell Grant funding mandatory, among other things.

While we were heartened to see the inclusion of the Reverse Transfer language in the panel-approved legislation, AACRAO is still concerned by numerous other provisions included in the bill. Ahead of Tuesday's markup, the association joined a coalition of 37 higher education groups in a letter to the committee's leadership outlining issues that we believe will make college more expensive for millions of students and families.

Some measures, including the elimination of the in-school interest subsidy for undergraduate students, the elimination of the 1.5 million grants to students made through the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, and the elimination of loan forgiveness and other benefits currently available in the student loan programs, would immediately increase the cost of college. The bill would also limit federal graduate loans and reduce funding for the TRIO program by $50 million. Additionally, the legislation would make significant changes in federal higher education policy without a clear understanding of the likely consequences, including weakening federal oversight of fraud and abuse in the federal aid system and revising the return of Title IV funds.

The House GOP's PROSPER Act, which passed out of committee on a party-line vote of 23-17, will now move to the full chamber for consideration. The Senate education committee has signaled its intent to to mark up its own version of legislation to reauthorize the HEA early next year. Discussions on the Senate side are expected to be more bipartisan, and some provisions in the House bill could face resistance.

AACRAO will continue to closely monitor any developments and engage with lawmakers in both parties and chambers as the reauthorization process moves forward.

-Mike Reilly

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