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.






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