Renewing the Higher Education Act

The Issue

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The Higher Education Act (HEA) is the single most important piece of legislation overseeing the relationship between the federal government, colleges and universities, and students. It authorizes various federal aid programs within the Department of Education that support students pursuing a postsecondary education, including grant programs that support efforts to expand and increase access for low-income and first-generation students, such as Pell Grants. The HEA also includes rules and regulations that higher education institutions must comply with to be eligible for Title IV federal student aid programs, including the Clery Act, which requires annual campus crime reports; rules governing the accreditation process; and financial responsibility requirements.

The HEA, first signed into law in 1965, is supposed to be renewed every five years. However, the last reauthorization was in 2008, and it has been running on a series of temporary extensions ever since. There have been efforts in each Congress to pass a bill or series of bills; however, none have ever gone beyond the committee level.

HEA in the 116th Congress

On Oct. 15, 2019, House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the College Affordability Act (CAA) (H.R. 4674), which,​ at over 1,200 pages, represents a substantial rewriting and expansion of the HEA. The House Education and Labor Committee voted along party lines Oct. 31 to pass the bill. 

The CAA is a dense, complicated piece of legislation, with a number of provisions that would be beneficial for students and institutions, such as significant increases in student aid and support for institutions that have historically been under resourced. However, these provisions are offset by intrusive, complicated, or burdensome requirements that will undercut the bill's primary goal to make higher education more affordable. 

The version of the bill introduced Oct. 15 had a number of issues ACE and the higher education association community believed were significant enough to prevent our support. Committee staff addressed many of these concerns in a revised bill they made public on Oct. 28, and that bill was further amended in markup before the final vote.

In the Senate

Meanwhile, bipartisan comprehensive HEA discussions in the Senate are currently stalled. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has attempted to revive the process with a bill containing a handful of changes to the HEA, the Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019​. Alexander and Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) also have​ introduced legislation to simplify the process for applying for federal financial aid. ​​Alexander also has ​announced his support for a bipartisan bill​ that would make changes to the 90/10 rule. ​


Page updated ​November 2019