The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 19, 2013

Congress is gearing up to “reauthorize,” or renew, the Higher Education Act, the major law that governs federal student aid. The following is a guide to reauthorization, with information about what’s at stake for colleges and resources to help make sense of the process.

What Is It?

The Higher Education Act is a law almost 50 years old that governs the nation’s student-aid programs and federal aid to colleges. It was signed into law in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society agenda of domestic programs, and it has been reauthorized nine times since then, most recently in 2008. It’s up for renewal again in 2014, and lawmakers have begun holding hearings and soliciting input to inform the process.

Why Does It Matter?

The Higher Education Act is the law that covers how federal dollars are awarded to colleges and students. It touches on everything from loan limits to accreditation, determining who gets money, how much, and when. What it doesn’t do is actually finance programs—that’s up to the Appropriations Committees in Congress.

But Isn’t Reauthorization Less Important Than It Once Was?

It’s true that major changes in student-aid policy are now being made outside of the reauthorization process, in spending bills and federal rules. That shift has made the act’s renewal less momentous than it used to be. Still, reauthorization remains a major legislative event, with consequences for all of higher education.

What Did Congress Change Last Time?

In the 2008 reauthorization, members of Congress sought to hold colleges and states accountable for rising tuition and to rein in abuses in the student-loan system. Lawmakers took steps to simplify the process of applying for federal student aid and to help students make better borrowing and college-going decisions. In some concrete ways, the bill achieved those goals. Yet the measure failed to attain its larger goals of making colleges more accountable and more affordable, and some lawmakers—and their constituents—are starting to question whether college is still worth it.

Read a news analysis about why the reauthorized act failed in its largest goals.

What Can We Expect This Time?

With tuition continuing to climb, and a growing number of graduates struggling to secure jobs and repay their student-loan debt, lawmakers will look for new ways to hold colleges accountable for their costs and outcomes. They’ll pursue changes in the nation’s accreditation system that colleges probably won’t like, and they’ll seek to promote new, cheaper models of learning, such as competency-based education. Democrats will try to limit the flow of federal dollars to for-profit colleges, but they’ll face pushback from Republicans, particularly in the House of Representatives. And with the Pell Grant program facing a financing shortfall, lawmakers are likely to make some changes in the federal student-aid system. The only question is how broad they will be.

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