Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) has been a focus of higher education associations for as long as I've worked in Washington, DC. Arriving fresh from campus in the summer of 2012, my peers and colleagues spoke of HEA reauthorization in jaded and urgent tones. It was imminent, and yet no one expected it to move that year. It was the most important piece of federal legislation related to higher education but the Committees in both chambers were working on other bills. Enmeshed in trying to absorb as much as I could as fast as I could, it became a simple and yet perpetually self-contradictory fact that HEA was both immediately important and perpetually stagnant. It wasn’t until several years later when I had time to more completely comprehend the breadth and potential of HEA as a whole that I finally understood why the contradictions are true.
The Federal Budget Process: Authorization & Appropriations
To fully unpack why HEA is such a big deal, it’s necessary to learn a bit more about how our federal government allows itself to spend money. The annual budget process - formally referred to as appropriations - is the familiar half of the process. Appropriations are the way that Congress determines how much money to allocate for all the various discretionary federal programs and agencies for each fiscal year. The annual budget process starts in February with the release of the President’s Budget Request to Congress. Ideally, the process ends with the successful passage of all 12 appropriations bills necessary to fund all areas of the federal government before the start of the fiscal year on October 1. Unfortunately, most people know about the appropriations process because when it doesn’t get done on time, it can cause the federal government to shut down.
What’s less well known is how Congress creates or makes changes to the programs on which they want to spend money. Authorization is the first step to fund a program with federal money and is required before funds can be appropriated through the annual budget process. HEA includes authorization language, which creates, extends, or makes changes to federal programs. Authorizing language can also specify the amount of money that the government may spend to carry out the program. In some authorization legislation Congress authorizes a specific amount for a program, and in others, it leaves the amount open-ended.
Authorizations allow Congress to allocate funds to a particular program but don’t always require that funding be allocated to those programs. As noted above, appropriations are annual allocations of federal funding to programs. This two-part process of authorization and appropriations means that even though a program is authorized, it may not have funds appropriated in one or more years sufficient to support it. For this reason, it’s important to pay attention both to what programs are authorized in HEA and to what programs are included in annual budget requests and appropriations bills.
There are many programs included within HEA and reauthorization bills can seem a little misleading in that they seem to imply that there is one action taken to reauthorize all the programs in the whole bill. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; each program may have its reauthorization language and the language in any given reauthorization bill may authorize the program through the full-time period of the overall reauthorization bill, or only for part of that time. Similarly, programs authorized in previous bills but not included in a new reauthorization bill will likely lapse. These different approaches to authorization language resulted in the lapse of authorization for several programs under Title III of HEA related to support for minority-serving institutions on September 30, 2019. Congress passed the FUTURE Act to restore, and permanently authorize, the funds in early December 2019.
Why is HEA Reauthorization Important?
The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act presents an opportunity to review and update the programs that the federal government funds to better enable our investments to fulfill both the promise and the responsibility of the federal government to today’s students. The original Higher Education Act of 1965 was 52 pages long and included eight major sections, called Titles, governing a range of programs and initiatives. Over the last 52 years, HEA has been reauthorized by Congress nine times, typically every 4-6 years, though the ninth reauthorization was completed in 2008, ten years after the prior reauthorization. The most recent reauthorization of the law called the Higher Education Opportunity Act and passed in 2008, is 432 pages long and includes 11 major sections. The tenth reauthorization was scheduled for 2013 and is now several years overdue.
Federal funding for higher education institutions and students is authorized through HEA, so student affairs professionals must engage in advocacy to support students and student aid around HEA reauthorization. By far the largest section of the bill is Title IV, which governs all federal financial assistance to students, including, but not limited to:
- Pell Grants;
- Federal student loan programs, including the federal direct loans and specialized loan programs like the Perkins Loan Program, and loan forgiveness provisions such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program;
- Federal TRIO programming; and
- Federal Work-Study programs.
Titles III and V of HEA also provide significant financial support for minority-serving institutions and teacher education programs.
The United States’ higher education system is unprecedented worldwide in guaranteeing access to affordable post-secondary education and training to millions, producing world-class research, and preparing engaged citizens. While there is much to celebrate in our national landscape of colleges and universities, years of state disinvestment and the diminishing purchasing power of federal grant programs have resulted in noticeable signs of wear. Our federal policy has failed to keep up with today’s more diverse student body, including many adults shouldering responsibility not only for their education but also that of their children, resulting in a system of financial aid and regulations that are ill-suited to meeting the needs of either today’s students or the American taxpayer. The reauthorization of HEA also presents an opportunity to address the unavailability of universal consumer data on student outcomes. The federal government is the only entity with the authority to collect data that would provide reliable information on key outcomes for all students.
As our industry changes and new pathways to access and complete higher education become available, the federal government needs to update legislation that guides regulation and financial aid distribution equitably. The federal policy broadly, and reauthorization of HEA specifically, can and should work to correct historical inequities and increase options for students that are proven to result in high-quality credentials.