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.




HEA Reauthorization Stalls in Senate, House Forges Ahead

Jun 7, 2018, 12:15 PM
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Summary : House version of HEA overhaul is seen as too partisan, so many have been eagerly awaiting a Senate bill—a wait that now seems likely to stretch beyond the midterm elections.
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After a rapid-fire start earlier this year, the U.S. Senate education committee's work on the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization has stalled, The New York Times reported.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said last week that his chamber would not produce promised higher education legislation this year, and blamed Democrats for the delay. The panel held a series of meetings in early 2018, but made little progress.

"We've given to the Democrats four months ago—after four years of hearings—our complete proposal about what to do and haven't gotten a response," Alexander said at an education conference last week. "They want to wait until next year to see if they're in better shape politically."

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the HELP committee, has said repeatedly that her party is not the problem. Murray, a spokeswoman said, "has made it clear that she wants to reauthorize the Higher Education Act as soon as possible to address the rising costs of college, increase access to underrepresented students, hold schools accountable for student success, and ensure every student is safe and free from discrimination on campus."

Meanwhile, House Republicans are forging ahead with efforts to advance their own HEA overhaul. The PROSPER Act, H.R. 4508 (115), was approved by the the House education committee last year, but the panel’s chairwoman, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), has not gotten a vote on the floor. Although the House GOP's efforts heated up again last month, with Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA.) hosting a meeting for Republicans to discuss the measure.

The legislation, if approved by the full House, is considered doomed in the Senate, where it would have to garner some Democratic support for floor passage, reported the Times. The House version is seen as too partisan, so many have been eagerly awaiting a Senate bill—a wait that now seems likely to stretch beyond the midterm elections.

With lawmakers at loggerheads, U.S. Education Secretary DeVos has made it clear that she is not waiting for Congress, the Times reported. The department recently announced a sweeping regulatory agenda that seeks revisions to key academic measurements in the existing law, as well as changes to eligibility requirements for nontraditional programs like "competency-based education" to obtain more federal financial aid.

The agency has also proposed to review what defines "regular and substantive interaction" between faculty members and students in programs where students are not physically present in classrooms, and to review the "credit hour," which is used to measure progress toward completing a college degree. It is also looking to review rules governing the role that accrediting agencies should play in securing federal financial aid for institutions, and that states should play in overseeing programs operating in their jurisdictions.

Related Links

The New York Times

Michelle Mott
Categories :
  • AACRAO Publications
  • AACRAO Transcript
  • Accreditation
  • Advocacy
  • Competency-Based Education
  • Compliance and Reporting
  • Financial Aid and FAFSA
  • Higher Education Act
Tags :
  • Completion
  • Credit Hour
  • Discrimination
  • education department
  • Federal Regulations
  • Federal relations
  • state authorization
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