Higher Education Act reauthorization advances

On October 31, 2019, the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor passed the College Affordability Act (H.R. 4674), the first comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act since 2008.

After the bill was introduced October 15,and a House Education and Labor Committee markup in late October, the committee passed the amended bill along party lines with a 28 to 22 vote. The bill would make significant changes to the way students access federal financial aid.

The bill include opens financial aid to new populations of students, tweaks grant and loan forgiveness programs, and establishes new institutional accountability metrics.  

In its letter to the committee, Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), wrote “while this bill makes substantive improvements in major areas, the concerns we have in the areas of accreditation and institutional burden, as well as the unknown impacts of the bill, are sufficiently significant to prevent our support of the bill as introduced.” Leaders of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) shared similar mixed reactions.

The College Affordability Act includes the following:

  • Pell grant expansion: The bill increases the maximum Pell award to $6,820, indexes it, and extends Pell eligibility to graduate school.
  • New Pell grant completion program limitations: The bill would authorize a $500 million program to boost degree completion for Pell grant recipients. However, eligibility is conditioned on an institution enrolling 25% or more Pell grant students.
  • New State-Federal Partnership for community colleges: The bill would establish a community college student success grant program to competitively award grants to eligible institutions to develop plans for community college student success programs. Notably, this federal-state partnership largely does not include four-year colleges and universities.
  • Preserves Title VI international education programs: The bill increases the authorization for Title VI international and area studies programs.
  • Emphasizes accountability: The bill includes accountability and data transparency provisions to put a spot light on degree completion.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), a member the House Education and Labor Committee and graduate of the University of Oregon, authored an amendment to help Federal Work-Study students determine whether they are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

For an analysis of the bill’s developments after the markup, read ACE’s letter to the committee here.

It is expected that the bill will be up for a vote by the full House before the end of the year.

Before Congress went on recess in late September, GOP education chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) brought forward a package of eight bipartisan higher education bills that would make piecemeal updates to the HEA. The bill, S. 2557 (116) — dubbed The Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019 — would simplify the FAFSA and financial aid letters, expand Pell Grants for short-term training programs and reverse the ban on federal aid for incarcerated students.

Alexander unveiled the legislation as he blocked, for a second time, a two-year extension of funding for historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, which expired on Oct. 1.