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.




Lame-Duck Congress Agenda

Nov 12, 2020, 11:44 AM
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Summary : Lawmakers return to Washington this week post-election with a number of pressing items on the legislative agenda.
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Lawmakers returned to Washington this week post-election with a number of pressing items on the legislative agenda. 

The outcome of the presidential and congressional elections will undoubtedly affect negotiations over a potential supplemental coronavirus stimulus bill during the lame-duck session, Politico reported. The higher education community has been warning Congress since this spring that students and institutions need more resources to tackle the pandemic. Additionally, the current moratorium on emergency student loan relief granted in March under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expires on December 31. The provision, created in the CARES Act and extended by executive action, waives all interest on student loans held by the federal government and allows borrowers to suspend payments. Either Congress or the Trump administration will need to act to once again extend that relief in the next month or else let it lapse as borrowers continue to struggle amid the pandemic. Democrats and Republicans largely agree that students need support and colleges and universities need tens of billions of dollars in federal relief, but continue to quarrel over the details of an additional stimulus aid package.

Lawmakers also face the looming December 11 expiration of government funding and need to reach a deal on fiscal year 2021 appropriations by that deadline to avoid a shutdown. Both House and Senate leaders have said they want to negotiate a massive spending deal by mid-December that would boost federal agency budgets for the remainder of fiscal 2021, which began October 1. However, securing bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a slate of appropriations bills in a lame-duck session of Congress will be an enormous lift for lawmakers, reported Politico.

Senate appropriators on Tuesday unveiled their bill to fund the Education Department for the 2021 fiscal year, proposing a less than 1 percent boost for education spending. The Labor-HHS-Education measure would provide $73.2 billion in discretionary funding for the Education Department, a $433 million increase over current levels. The Senate GOP proposal comes in below the $73.5 billion House Democrats passed earlier this year in a six-bill appropriations minibus. Both the Senate and House bills would increase the maximum Pell grant award by $150 to $6,495.

The House-passed education funding bill includes policy language that would amend the 90-10 rule—tightening the maximum share of revenue for-profit institutions can take in from federal sources at 85 percent and counting military education benefits as federal revenue—and block Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from carrying out her new Title IX regulations governing sexual misconduct in schools and colleges. The proposed provisions are nonstarters in the Republican Senate.

Although lawmakers will need to reach a deal on all 11 of the FY 2021 spending bills, Senate appropriators do not plan to mark up the measure proposed on Tuesday. Instead, they are expected to dive into negotiations with the House over an omnibus appropriations deal to avert a government shutdown when stopgap funding expires in mid-December, Politico reported.

Finally, with the retirement of long-time Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the upper chamber could prompt renewed discussion of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) before the end of the year—or a bill to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—during the lame-duck session, reported Inside Higher Ed. Alexander, a proponent of simplification, is hoping to at least advance a final standalone measure to reduce the number of questions on the form and end the Education Department's lengthy verification process. The Republican committee members to potentially take helm of the committee will not have as great an interest in higher education issues as Alexander, Inside Higher Ed reported. Therefore, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the HELP committee, will need to decide whether to cut a deal with Sen. Alexander on HEA or wait in the hopes that Democrats will control the Senate next year in the runoff Georgia elections—scheduled two days after Alexander retires.

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Michelle Mott
Categories :
  • Advocacy
  • Financial Aid and FAFSA
  • Higher Education Act
  • Veterans and Service Members
Tags :
  • 90/10 rule
  • covid-19
  • education department
  • election
  • Emergency Financial Support
  • Federal Regulations
  • Federal relations
  • for-profit colleges
  • government budget
  • pell grant
  • sexual assault
  • title ix
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