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.




Senator Renews Push to Simplify FAFSA

Sep 23, 2020, 18:13 PM
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Summary : Lamar Alexander devoted the last scheduled hearing of the HELP committee before he leaves office to a proposal that would reduce the number of questions on the FAFSA from 108 to 33.
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The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing last Thursday on simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a long-time proponent of simplification, devoted the last scheduled hearing of the HELP committee before he leaves office to a proposal that would reduce the number of questions asked on form students have to fill out to get federal financial aid for college from 108 to 33, reported Inside Higher Ed. 

Sen. Alexander, as he has done for years, stood at the hearing and held out the long application, Inside Higher Ed reported. The current application, he said deters many students from getting the aid they need to go to college, and simplifying it is important amid the COVID-19 outbreak, when students are questioning the value of college.

"Twenty million students and their families are in the middle of what is likely the strangest first semester of college in a century," he said. "Almost everything has changed for students, except for one thing—students still have to answer 108 questions on the dreaded FAFSA form."

Alexander's measure would also replace the Education Department's lengthy verification process by only asking on the aid form financial questions that appear on IRS forms. The tax information would then be used to verify the information on the FAFSA.

Last year, Congress passed a smaller FAFSA simplification measure as part of a bill to reauthorize funding for historically black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions. The legislation allows the IRS to more seamlessly share students' taxpayer data with the Education Department, helping students to more easily apply for federal financial aid and enroll in income-based loan repayment programs.

However, the broader push to streamline the number of questions on the FAFSA has been caught up as part of the debate over a larger reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the HELP committee, previously insisted that she would only support simplifying the application as part of HEA reauthorization, but did not repeat the demand at the hearing, Inside Higher Ed reported.

She said instead, "The pandemic has had a profound impact on families across the country. FAFSA must be a tool to expand access to education, not a barrier. Students who need our help the most are facing the biggest burden in getting financial aid. We need to do everything we can to make their lives easier."

A spokeswoman for Murray did not immediately respond to Inside Higher Ed's question of whether the senator would support simplifying the application without it being tied to other issues.

Related Links

U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Hearing


Inside Higher Ed


Michelle Mott
Categories :
  • Advocacy
  • Financial Aid and FAFSA
  • Higher Education Act
Tags :
  • Access and Equity
  • covid-19
  • education department
  • Federal relations
  • hbcu
  • IBR
  • IRS
  • MSI
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