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.




Trump Administration Releases New Proposed Rules on Distance Ed

Apr 2, 2020, 14:03 PM
legacy id :
Summary : Regulations would emphasize demonstrated learning over seat time, and define "regular and substantive" interaction between students and instructors, among other things.
Url :

The U.S. Education Department on Wednesday released proposed final rules on distance education. The regulations governing distance learning and innovation hew closely to a consensus proposal approved last year by a panel—consisting largely of accrediting agencies, college groups, financial aid administrators, and student representatives—the department convened in 2018 to negotiate new rules, reported Inside Higher Ed.

The package of recommendations approved last spring by the rule-making subcommittee on distance education and innovation was generally supported by educators and online learning supporters, who said the changes in federal law would clarify some murky definitions and give institutions more flexibility to create and enroll students in nontraditional academic programs, Inside Higher Ed reported. However, consumer advocates and other critics warn that the plan would scale back oversight of colleges and allow more low-quality institutions to enroll students and access federal student aid.

The proposed final rules would:

amend the definitions of "clock hour" and "credit hour" to provide flexibility to distance education and other types of educational programs that emphasize demonstration of learning rather than seat time when measuring student outcomes, while still allowing those programs to participate in the Federal Student Aid programs authorized under title IV of the HEA (title IV, HEA programs),

  • amend the definitions of "distance education" and "correspondence course" to account for changes in distance education technology and the types of programs offered by institutions, e.g., competency-based education (CBE) programs,
  • clarify, through new definitions, the requirements of regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors for a course to be considered distance education and not a correspondence course, 
  • define "incarcerated student" and "juvenile justice facility" to clarify the Pell Grant eligibility requirements for incarcerated students, 
  • allow students enrolled in foreign institutions to take courses at domestic institutions, 
  • define "subscription-based programs" and establish the conditions for disbursement of Title IV, Higher Education Act assistance in such programs, 
  • clarify and simplify the requirements for "direct assessment programs," including regulations for the determination of equivalent credit hours for such programs, 
  • define a "week of instruction" for asynchronous online programs to clarify how that term applies to distance education or correspondence courses, 
  • amend regulations to ensure the treatment of students enrolled in distance or competency-based programs in a manner consistent with their peers in traditional programs, and 
  • amend regulations regarding financial responsibility to codify and clarify requirements when there is an institutional change of ownership or control. 

The department, in its news release about the proposed regulations, linked their publication to the onset of COVID-19, despite the fact that the release was months overdue and the rules drafted before the outbreak of pandemic. 

"With our support, colleges and universities were among the first to transition to online and distance learning so learning could continue during the coronavirus pandemic," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was quoted as saying in the news release. "Frankly, though, they are working within the confines of stale rules and regulations that are in desperate need of rethinking. We know there are fewer and fewer 'traditional' students in higher education, and this current crisis has made crystal clear the need for more innovation. It's past time we rethink higher ed to meet the needs of all students."

Although it is unclear why the department tied the regulations' publication to the coronavirus crisis, some speculated that it might be to justify a 30-day comment period, which is shorter than is typical, and to ward off any suggestion that the government should not issue major regulatory guidance at a time when many people are distracted by a national crisis, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Related Links

U.S. Education Department Press Release


Inside Higher Ed


Michelle Mott
Categories :
  • Accreditation
  • Advocacy
  • Competency-Based Education
  • Financial Aid and FAFSA
  • Higher Education Act
  • Online and Distance Learning
Tags :
  • covid-19
  • Credit Hour
  • education department
  • Federal Regulations
  • Federal relations
  • International Education
  • Negotiated Rulemaking
  • pell grant
Related people