The Current State of Higher Education Reauthorization

November 13, 2019

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The Higher Education Act (HEA) governs federal higher education programs, authorizing federal student-aid programs for postsecondary education and setting regulations for higher education institutions. First passed in 1965, HEA is supposed to be reauthorized every five years. However, it has been over a decade since Congress last reauthorized HEA in 2008.

A Commitment to Reauthorization

With the cost of higher education rising and access diminishing, leaders of the education committees committed to reauthorizing HEA in the 116th Congress. After months of hearings and negotiations, both Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, released proposals to reauthorize HEA in September and October, respectively.

On September 27, Chairman Alexander released the Student Aid Improvement Act, a package of eight bills that would reauthorize HEA. Among other things, the eight bills, which were drafted by 35 Senators total, including 20 Democrats, would simplify the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), increase the maximum Pell Grant award, allow the use of Pell Grants for short-term programs, and provide permanent mandatory funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Debate Continues in the Senate

Despite bipartisan sponsorship of most of the bills, Chairman Alexander’s reauthorization package is unlikely to win Democratic support. Chairman Alexander introduced the package of bills after preventing the Senate from considering the FUTURE Act, which would extend funding for HBCUs for two years (funding expired at the end of September). The Chairman argued that the FUTURE Act could not pass the Senate, and instead, the Senate should pass a long-term solution, like the Student Aid Improvement Act. Critics believe that Chairman Alexander is holding the FUTURE Act hostage to win support for his package.

Democrat-Controlled House Considers College Affordability Act

Meanwhile, in the House, Chairman Bobby Scott introduced the College Affordability Act, a comprehensive $400 billion reauthorization of HEA. The bill, which the House Education and Labor Committee approved along party lines, would increase the maximum Pell Grant amount, create a federal-state partnership to make community college free, simplify FAFSA, expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and repeal the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated persons. Republicans strongly oppose the measure. During the markup, Ranking Member of the House Education and Labor Committee Virginia Foxx (R-NC) blasted the partisan reforms and said the bill “doubles down on failed policies and hurts students.” Democrats control the House, so despite Republican opposition, the bill could pass quickly through the lower chamber. However, it is likely dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Challenges Ahead

Both the Senate and House efforts to reauthorize HEA face a difficult road ahead. The 2020 presidential election further complicates any potential for reauthorization. Despite the challenges, members of both political parties want to see meaningful reforms to HEA this Congress, especially Senator Alexander, who plans to retire at the end of his term in 2020.

Industry Impact

“With the markup of the College Affordability Act (CAA), the most comprehensive reauthorization package released this Congress, it goes a long way in making improvements to programs that need some modernization. For example, college access programs like GEAR UP, made significant headway in CAA to better support our grantees on issues of college readiness, scholarships, frequency of awards, and the match requirement, among others. It is our hope that the Senate will follow the House’s lead on programs like GEAR UP that enjoy bipartisan, bicameral support.”

Alex Chough, Vice President, National Council for Community and Education Partnerships

Read more on national education trends from MWC’s National Education Team