By Greg Berman

On October 15, 2019, Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the College Affordability Act.[1]  The bill contains sweeping reforms in the higher education sector, including expanding Pell Grant eligibility to undocumented and incarcerated students, overhauling the federal loan repayment system, and tethering the maximum Pell Grant award to inflation.[2]  The College Affordability Act also revives policy initiatives brought by its 2018 predecessor,[3] which contained many of the same provisions but quickly floundered in the Republican-led House.[4]  Now, however, with Democrats firmly in control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2011, some statisticians have estimated that the bill could have a chance of being enacted this term.[5]  Enacting this bill would be noteworthy for many reasons.  For starters, its comprehensive reforms to higher education will affect millions of students attending post-secondary schools.[6]  It also would ban predatory for-profit schools from receiving funds from any federal grant program.[7] However, perhaps most notably, enacting the College Affordability Act would finally reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965, a feat that has not been accomplished since 2008.[8] 

But why is “reauthorizing” the Higher Education Act of 1965 such a big deal?  What even is the Higher Education Act of 1965?  The Higher Education Act of 1965, better known as the HEA, was a key component of President Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative.[9]  The HEA created a series of federal aid programs relating to higher education, and currently governs all of the federal money that goes into colleges and universities.[10]  Because of the volatile nature of higher education, the drafters of the HEA feared that the bill would quickly become outdated if not periodically amended.[11]  As such, the drafters placed numerous sunset provisions throughout the HEA, ensuring that Congress would return to the bill every four to six years and “reauthorize” its funding.[12]

In 1968, only three years after first passing the HEA, Congress had its first opportunity to reauthorize the bill.[13]  In its first reauthorization, Congress only made small alterations to the bill, creating new grant programs for disadvantaged families while increasing the funding going towards existing programs.[14]  The HEA was next reauthorized from the Higher Education Amendments of 1972.  Even though Richard Nixon, a Republican, was now the president, the amendments still passed with bipartisan support.[15]  In fact, this 1972 reauthorization greatly expanded the purview of the HEA, creating the Federal Pell Grant program to provide financial assistance directly to students in need.[16]  Following this trend of bipartisanship, Congress reauthorized the HEA in 1976, 1980, 1986, 1992, and 1998.[17]  Each iteration of the act contained differing provisions, depending on the party controlling the legislative branch at the time, yet still were consistently ratified without lengthy delays.[18]  However, that all changed while Congress was attempting to reauthorize the HEA after the 1998 amendments.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the Higher Education Opportunity Act, reauthorizing the HEA for the first time since 1998.[19]  The HEA was actually due for full-scale reauthorization five years earlier, but political gridlock forced lawmakers to enact a then “unprecedented” fourteen extensions of the HEA’s statutory deadline.[20]  The Higher Education Opportunity Act took effect in late 2008, ten years after the most recent HEA reauthorization, and attempted to adapt higher education to the new millennium.[21] Among other reforms, it forced colleges to be more transparent with the price of education, it allowed students attending summer programs to obtain Pell Grant funding, and it attempted to address the ever-growing student loan debt level for recent graduates.[22]  In addition to these systematic reforms, the 2008 reauthorization also created around seventy new aid programs and increased the federal funding going towards existing programs.[23]  The HEA finally was fully reauthorized, and the funding from the bill was not set to expire until September 30, 2014, giving Congress six years to come together to form a new agreement for future funding.[24]  Congress failed.

It has been eleven years since the Higher Education Act was last reauthorized, creating an uncertain future for the many federal programs reliant on its funding.  For example, the mandatory appropriations for Title III, Part F, which provides funding to STEM programs for many HSIs and HBCUs,[25] was set to expire on September 30, 2019.[26]  To avoid this, the House of Representatives passed legislation in the Spring of 2019 to fund Title III programs for two years to give Congress time to fully reauthorize the HEA.[27]  Rather than voting on this bill, however, a recent Senate compromise has instead led them preferring a “piecemeal approach” to reauthorization, rather than a full-scale overhaul of the HEA.[28]  Because politicians refused to compromise, the end result is that Congress failed to reauthorize Title III, Part F funding, and its mandatory appropriations have officially expired.[29]

Based on the parties’ proposals in recent years, there is little indication that the parties’ impasse will be resolved without serious compromise. On December 1, 2017, House Republicans introduced the PROSPER Act, sponsored by Virginia Foxx (R-NC), which aimed to help “prepare [students] to enter the workforce with the skills they need”[30]  The PROSPER Act would have reauthorized the HEA, but it was also heavily criticized by college lobbyists and Democratic leaders alike for the burdens it places on graduating students and its weakened restrictions on predatory for-profit schools.[31]  On July 24, 2018, House Democrats responded by announcing the Aim Higher Act, which (because Democrats were the minority party at the time) only really functioned as a “point-by-point rejection” of the PROSPER Act.[32]  While neither of these bills ultimately came to fruition, they still signal that the parties’ current positions are diametrically opposite, casting further doubt on Congress’s current reauthorization efforts.

Currently, the College Affordability Act is the only full-scale HEA reauthorization bill pending before the 116th Congress.[33] So where is this reauthorization bill now? After its introduction, the House Committee on Education and Labor sent the bill to the full chamber for consideration.[34] The House of Representatives has yet to vote on the bill.[35]  However, even if the College Affordability Act makes it through the House in its current form, there is no guarantee that it would survive either the Senate or the President’s desk.  In President Trump’s most recent budget proposal, he proposed a massive series of cuts to several HEA grant programs, indicating his early disapproval with the College Affordability Act and possibly the HEA in general.[36]

When two sides have become this divided on a once-bipartisan issue, it is clear that something needs to be done. While some of this divide may be mere correlation with the overall increase in political polarization,[37] its consequences for education reform have been severe and will continue to grow worse.  The Higher Education Act needs to be reauthorized, and many essential federal programs will continue to suffer for as long as Congress fails to do so.

[1] College Affordability Act, H.R. 4674, 116th Cong. (2019)

[2] Higher Education Act, American Ass’n of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, (last visited Feb. 14, 2020).

[3] See infra text accompanying note 32.

[4] See Andrew Kreighbaum, House Dems’ Vision for Higher Ed, Inside Higher Ed. (Oct. 16, 2019),

[5] Skopos Labs, Prognosis Details: H.R. 4674, GovTrack, (last visited Feb. 14, 2020). Of course, because the increasing polarization of Washington, D.C. is not considered by Skopos Labs, this prognosis may be slightly optimistic. Id.

[6] Kreighbaum, supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] 20 U.S.C. §§ 1001 et seq. (2018); see also Higher Education Act, Ass’n of Ctrs. for the Study of Cong., (last visited Feb. 14, 2020).

[10] Alexandra Hegji, Cong. Research Serv., R43351, Higher Education Act (HEA): Primer 2 (2016).

[11] Adam Harris, Congress Might Finally Overhaul Higher Education, The Atlantic (Mar. 8, 2019),

[12] See, e.g., 20 U.S.C. § 1071a–1(g); id. at § 1078(3)(e); id. at § 1098(k). If Congress is unable to agree on a full reauthorization bill, it can pass short-term extensions to continue funding higher education programs. Mark Kantrowitz, Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, (Dec. 26, 2018),

[13] Lawrence E. Gladieux, Federal Student Aid Policy: A History and Assessment, U.S. Dept. of Educ. (Oct. 1995),

[14] Id.

[15] See id.

[16] Id. Previous Federal Grant programs distributed money to the universities, which in turn dispursed them to the students.  Lumina Foundation, Pell Grant: Building Block of Student Based Aid, Institute for Higher Education Policy 5, (last visited Feb. 14, 2019). The Pell Grant was the first Federal Grant program to provide assistance directly to the students themselves. Id.

[17] Hegji, supra note 8, at44 (2016).

[18] See id.

[19] Id.

[20] ACE Analysis of Higher Education Act Reauthorization, American Council on Education (last visited Feb. 14, 2020).

[21] Emily Bouck & India Heckstall, As the Higher Ed Opportunity Act Turns 10, Here’s How the Landscape Has Changed, EdSurge (Aug. 17, 2018),

[22] ACE Analysis, supra note 18.

[23] Id.

[24] See id.

[25] HSIs refers to Hispanic Serving Institutions, while HBCUs refers to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

[26] Teri Lyn Hinds, Will the Higher Education Act Be Reauthorized in 2019?, Nat’l Ass’n of Student Personnel Administrators (Oct. 24, 2019),

[27] Id.

[28] Madeline St. Amour, Next Steps Uncertain After Bipartisan Agreement, Inside Higher Ed (Dec. 5, 2019),

[29] Andrew Kreighbaum, HBCUs Plan Cuts After Congress Misses Funding Deadline, Inside Higher Ed (Oct. 15, 2019),

[30] PROSPER Act, H.R. 4508, 115th Cong. (2017)

[31] See Andrew Kreighbaum, GOP Seeks to Shift Accountability for Colleges, Inside Higher Ed (Dec. 4, 2017),

[32] Andrew Kreighbaum, The Democratic Alternative, Inside Higher Ed (July 25, 2018), See Aim Higher Act, H.R. 6543, 115th Cong. (2018) for the full text of the proposed act.

[33] See Kreighbaum, supra note 3.

[34] H.R. 4674: College Affordability Act, GovTrack, (last visited Feb. 14, 2020).

[35] Id.

[36] Wesley Whistle, Trump Budget Proposes Cuts to Education, Forbes (Feb. 10, 2020),

[37] See Frank Newport, The Impact of Increased Political Polarization, Gallup (Dec. 5, 2019),