A Look into the Status and Impact of the Higher Education Act

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) is one of the many bills that has gone through myriad rounds of reauthorization and political discussion over the years and is currently in a politically interesting state of deconstruction and reform. Unlike some other bills, the HEA is supposed to be examined and renewed every five years according to what has been agreed upon by Congress at the time of the signing. This is to ensure alignment with current university standards and structures as well as current technology, political climate and anti-discrimination efforts.

The last reauthorization of the HEA, however, was in 2008 and it officially expired in 2013. Since this expiration, the 2008 HEA has been extended while Congress works through amendments and changes to the Act. To date, there has not been consensus on the reauthorization. Why is that and what is the current status of the HEA?

Currently, there are two HEA bills that are being considered by the House. On the Republican side there is the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity Through Education Reform Act (PROSPER), while the Democrats have introduced the Aim Higher Act. These bills were proposed in 2017 and 2018 respectively. As the majority in 2017, the Republican bill, PROSPER, was contended over and approved by the Republican party, however, it was unable to advance to a vote on the floor. As the current majority, the Democrats Aim Higher Act is currently the forerunner working through approval and towards the floor.

While both parties definitively agree that a major overhaul of the HEA is in order, PROSPER and Aim Higher would like to ratify different portions of the HEA.

A quick rundown summary on these bills:


  • Seeks to simplify loans and grants into one of each – The Pell Grant and the proposed Federal ONE loan
  • Would award an additional $300 Pell Grant for higher academic workload
  • Would maximize lifetime loans at $60,250 for undergraduates and $150,000 for graduates. These would not go into deferment while a student is attending university and would continue to accrue interest.
  • Simplifies FAFSA
  • Seeks to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program

Aim Higher

  • Simplifies FAFSA and implements lowest income groups receiving a Pell Grant w/o answering additional questions
  • Would expand Pell Grants for lowest income students
  • Seeks to prohibit for-profit universities spending less than 50% of tuition revenue on education/teaching from using federal funding on marketing, lobbying or advertising
  • Seeks to add completion rates and workforce participation rates to accreditation factors
  • Would allow DREAMers and prisoners to be granted federal financial aid for post-secondary education

As you can see, each bill has a dramatically different impact on both students seeking higher education as well as on the institutions providing education and doling out loans.

Because each bill is so radically different in its approach, there are staunch supporters and opposers of each bill and that divide is deeply impacting each bills’ ability to come to the floor for a vote. Interestingly enough, the support around both bills centers on how each individual bill will stimulate the workforce and effectively promote the ability for students to receive post-secondary education.

The opposition, however, is more nuanced. Opponents of PROPSER believe that it puts corporate and for-profit interests above the interest of the students, makes it more difficult for low- and middle-income students to pay for college and repay loans, lessens accountability standards on institutions, cuts about $15 billion (14.6 to be exact) from federal student aid and generally promotes taking financial advantage of students. On the other side, opponents of Aim Higher believe that the bill does nothing to actually lower costs to students, does not address an underlying problem in post-secondary education costs nor why post-secondary education is so costly to begin with and instead simply gives out more financial aid while being skewed towards special interest groups.

In the current political climate, the HEA reauthorization has been stalled out for years. However, there has been speculation that a renewed effort to reauthorize HEA will be taking place this year as the chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), will not be seeking reelection in 2020. As the chair, Alexander has been a leading voice for higher education since 2003 and seen each attempt to reauthorize the HEA since its expiration. He has also called for bi-partisan input from the community for HEA reauthorization. Hopefully, his announcement will spur action and we will see a reauthorization to the HEA and the debates can be put to rest.