Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – Issues and Solutions

Susan Dynarski, University of Michigan, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Temple University, Donald E. Heller, University of San Francisco, Nicholas Hillman, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Linda Naval, Betsy Lehman Center, Suzanne Mettler, Cornell University, Deondra Rose, Duke University, Judith Scott-Clayton, Teachers College, Columbia University

Congress has begun the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act of 1965 amid intensifying public debates over college affordability and the effectiveness of federal student aid programs. As lawmakers look for policy solutions to today’s challenges, SSN scholars explain the history, purpose, and challenges facing the law – and suggest possible reforms.


The Origins and Shifting Impact of the Higher Education Act

First enacted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Higher Education Act aimed to make a college education more affordable for students from lower and middle-income families, widening access to well-paid jobs and careers. The act has fulfilled its original objectives for millions of American students over many decades. But in recent decades, changes in federal higher education policies and reductions in state support for public universities, coupled with shifts in the landscape of U.S. higher education, have left some college students worse off. As SSN members explain, new obstacles especially face college students who leave early without degrees or end up in jobs after graduation that pay too little to allow ready repayment of student loan obligations.

> Will U.S. College Aid Continue Its Proud Track Record of Enlarging Opportunity and Reducing Inequality?
Deondra Rose, Duke University

> How U.S. Education Promotes Inequality – And What Can be Done to Broaden Access and Graduation
Suzanne Mettler, Cornell University

> Will Impending Reforms in Federal College Loan Programs Hurt Black Students and Families?
Sara Goldrick-Rab, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jason Houle, Dartmouth College, and Robert Kelchen, Seton Hall University

Possible Reforms

As Congress tackles revisions to federal higher education policies, several reforms may be desirable. Simplifying the federal student financial aid system, designing an improved income-based loan repayment plan, and holding schools with high student loan default rates accountable are just a few of the ideas SSN experts propose for updating the Higher Education Act and restoring opportunity.

> Making Loans Work for Today's College Students
Susan Dynarski, University of Michigan

> Designing Better Ways to Regulate Colleges with Too Many Students Who Default on Federal Loans
Nicholas Hillman, University of Wisconsin-Madison

> The Need to Simplify Financial Aid for College Students
Judith Scott-Clayton, Teachers College, Columbia University

Next Steps in Congress

Despite partisan polarization and gridlock, Congress has recently made some progress toward reauthorizing the Higher Education Act with both Democrats and Republicans suggesting specific reforms, some of which draw on ideas developed by SSN members Sara Goldrick-Rab, Susan Dynarski, and Judith Scott-Clayton. Nevertheless, with the November 2014 elections and subsequent lame duck session looming, the challenge of improving and updating federal higher education legislation is not likely to be met until 2015 or later.

> Congress Moves to Update the Higher Education Act
Linda Naval, Scholars Strategy Network

> College Affordability and the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965
Donald E. Heller, Michigan State University

October 2014