Higher Education Act: House Democrats release proposal, draw mixed reactions

House Democrats last week introduced a 1,165-page bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, prioritizing reforms to improve college affordability for underrepresented students, reports Diverse Issues in Higher Education. The Higher Education Act dates back to 1965 and is typically reauthorized every five years, although it has been 10 years since the last renewal.

The new bill, titled the College Education Act, is estimated to cost $400 billion across a decade and is more moderate than education plans put forth by Democratic presidential candidates. Some members of the party say it does not go far enough, writes The Chronicle of Higher Education. Meanwhile, Republicans—who released their own Higher Education Act proposal in March—are not expected to support the new bill.


The House Committee on Education and Labor, which introduced the new bill, says it “lowers the cost of college for students and families, improves the quality of higher education through stronger accountability, and expands opportunity by providing students the support and flexibility they need to succeed.” Under the bill, federal and state governments would: 

  • Invest more deeply in public colleges and universities to slow the rising cost of tuition;
  • Waive tuition at community colleges for in-state students; 
  • Tighten regulation of for-profit colleges;
  • Hold schools accountable for student safety and post-graduation outcomes; 
  • Increase the value of Pell Grants and make them available to incarcerated students and students in short-term programs;
  • And invest in wraparound services and college safety.

In addition, the bill calls for investing in students of color by “increasing and permanently reauthorizing mandatory funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other Minority Serving Institutions.” Under the proposal, the government would prioritize aid for schools that effectively and systemically support low-income students, minority students, and students who are struggling academically.

The bill also would make student loans less expensive and easier to repay. It would simplify loan repayment by waiving loan origination fees and moving from eight repayment plan options to two: one regular plan and one income-based plan.

‘An important step forward’

While saying she wishes the Democrats’ bill extended free tuition to four-year colleges and doubled the maximum Pell Grant, Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, said that, overall, she supports the bill. “There’s a lot in there that would advance socioeconomic and racial equity in higher ed.”

Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, lent her support, as well. “It’s an important step forward,” said Voight. “Today’s students really deserve an update to that legislation… especially with a focus on low-income students and students of color who have historically been left behind by our higher education system.” Commenting on opportunities for further improvement, Voight suggested adding provisions to enhance net-price calculators and cost transparency.

‘More work to be done’

According to The Washington Post, certain elements of the bill could garner bipartisan support, including provisions to overhaul financial aid applications and expand Pell Grants to incarcerated students. But Republicans likely will balk at measures to increase oversight of for-profit colleges and control over college accreditation.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, cautioned that the bill would require more oversight and ultimately would “increase the cost of doing business for most institutions.” Other experts are pushing for even more expansive reform. “There is more work to be done in terms of ensuring affordability at both the front and the back end,” said Ashley Harrington, senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group.

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