House Democrats Begin the HEA Reauthorization Process (Again)
Published: October 16, 2019

​House Democrats on Tuesday introduced the latest legislative proposal to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), the law that governs federal financial aid and other higher education programs, as well as relevant rules and regulations.

First signed into law in 1965, the HEA is supposed to be renewed every five years. The last reauthorization was in 2008, and it has been running on temporary extensions for the past several years while lawmakers start—then stop—the reauthorization process, only to have to begin again every two years when a new Congress is sworn in.

This latest bill is based on a 2018 measure Democrats introduced in the last Congress when they were in the minority, the Aim Higher Act (H.R. 6543). At 1,100-plus pages, the new iteration—known as the College Affordability Act​—is a substantial rewriting and expansion of the HEA. As is typical in a bill this large, it has both good and bad provisions, as well as provisions that are difficult to fully evaluate at this point. 

The legislation is significantly more generous than current programs for students and borrowers, increasing funding levels for Pell Grants, TRIO, and GEAR UP and making loans more affordable. It proposes reviving the Perkins Loan Program—which expired in 2017—restructuring the Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs, and re-establishing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program on more stable footing. And as we move closer toward the 2020 election, it would enact a federal-state partnership to make community colleges free, a high-profile issue for most Democrats in the presidential primary race.

The bill also would address some of the Obama-era rules and regulations that have been under fire in the Trump administration, including restoring the gainful employment rule designed to weed out programs that produce graduates who are overburdened with debt which was repealed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and the borrower defense regulations the Department of Education overhauled earlier this year.

Among the problematic provisions, the bill would dramatically increase the federal intrusion into, and micromanagement of,​ colleges and universities. Proposals such as federalizing accreditation and dictating new positions that must be filled on a campus represent a heavy-handed approach to federal policy. 

How other aspects of the bill would work—and whether they are positive or negative for students and institutions—are unclear. For example, simplifying the structure of student loans and paring down the number of loan programs from seven to two may be a good idea, but there are not enough details to know who will be harmed or left out, and how these changes will impact all borrowers. 

As ACE Senior Vice President Terry Hartle told Inside Higher Ed today, House Democrats will have to grapple with how to pay for the bill as well as controversy over the bigger federal role in higher education that it signals. They also will have to deal with the Senate. HEA discussions in that chamber are currently stalled, although Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate education committee, has attempted to revive the process with a bill containing a handful of changes to the HEA that he released last month. Inside Higher Ed pointed out similarities between elements of the House bill and Alexander’s measure, including proposals to streamline the FAFSA, lift the ban on federal aid for incarcerated students, and open Pell Grant eligibility to short-term higher ed programs. 

For more details, ACE has prepared a summary of both the House bill and Alexander’s legislation​.​