4 Ways that Congress Should Update the Higher Education Act

Published jan. 10, 2019

As the new Congress ramps up, legislators should waste no time in tackling one of the most pressing issues facing the nation—a broken higher education system that doesn’t meet the needs of all students or our growing economy. 

In the second blog in a series on how the 116th Congress can make bold bets on America’s workers and learners, JFF’s policy team took a closer look at the federal Higher Education Act (HEA) of 2008 and found that it is in serious need of an update.

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The HEA is the law that governs our nation’s higher education programs and manages a $120 billion financial aid portfolio. But after 11 years, the HEA is outdated. It’s primarily structured to serve first-time and full-time college goers, which doesn’t accurately represent today’s students. Students in 2019 are more likely to be older and are juggling other demands besides schoolwork, such as child care and supporting a family. 

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Congress needs to reimagine our nation’s higher education system to spur the development of innovative and evidence-based strategies that allow more Americans to access, afford, and attain postsecondary credentials and skills.

JFF is committed to ensuring economic advancement for all and has solutions on how Congress can fix the HEA. These solutions are included in recommendations  from our report, Building Pathways to Credentials, Careers and Economic Mobility. The recommendations, if enacted, would ensure our nation’s higher education system helps a broad range of individuals successfully access and complete postsecondary education and prosper in the economy. 

The following are highlights of JFF’s higher education brief, featuring four key ways that Congress can improve the HEA. 

1. Improve Higher Education Information

Today’s prospective college students are unable to access high quality information regarding the full cost of attending college, student outcomes by subgroups, and prospective labor market outcomes across programs. This is because federal postsecondary data systems are incomplete and inefficient, making it difficult for students to choose an institution or program of study that best meets their needs.

 For example, the workforce outcomes included on the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard website don’t include information on the nearly 30 percent of postsecondary graduates who did not receive federal financial aid while attending college. This omission leaves out data on a big chunk of college graduates. The Scorecard also doesn’t capture graduation  rates of part-time and non-first-time students. The result is that prospective students are not getting a full and accurate picture of completion rates, employment opportunities, and salaries they should expect to receive with their degree or certification. Without this information, many students choose a degree path or credential that leads to minimal job openings, subpar wages, or little career advancement.

2. Make Federal Financial Aid More Flexible (and Simplify the FAFSA!)

Financial aid is critical for low-income students pursuing postsecondary education. For many students, especially low-income and first-generation college students, the process of applying for federal and state financial aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form is complicated and intimidating. Only 60.9% of graduates from the high school class of 2018 completed the FAFSA by June 2018. This means that far too many students missed out on the opportunity to see if they qualify for financial aid.

The HEA should simplify FAFSA, which is an area of strong bipartisan agreement.  But Congress shouldn’t stop there.  Federal financial aid should also be made more flexible, accessible, and innovative to meet the diverse needs of today’s students. The HEA should also retain restoration of year-round Pell Grants, which enable students to continue their studies through the summer.

Congress should also maintain access to financial aid for students who haven’t completed high school but have demonstrated their ability to succeed in college-level coursework through the “Ability to Benefit” provision in HEA.  The act should also be updated to allow financial aid to cover the cost of prior learning assessments, which give students credits for what they’ve already learned through previous education or time in the workforce or military.

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The HEA needs to be strengthened to encourage more opportunities for work-based learning.

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3. Connect to Careers

Many students want to pursue a college education while gaining real-world experience in their field of study. But higher education and workforce policies aren’t set up to join forces on this issue, or institutions don’t offer many opportunities for this or other forms of work-based learning to occur. For example, many jobs provided by HEA’s federal work-study program do not relate to the student’s program of study even though the program is intended to provide participants with career-related work experience. And while increasing, there are still few opportunities for students to participate in other forms of work-based learning, including Registered Apprenticeships.

JFF recommends that the HEA be strengthened to encourage more opportunities for work-based learning, stronger connections between work-study positions and students’ career goals, and better data collection on labor market outcomes of all students.

4. Spur Innovation and Test Alternative Delivery Methods

Many students need access to flexible, affordable, and accelerated programs that help them stay on track and complete postsecondary credentials. Today’s HEA does not allow federal financial aid to be used for many alternative forms of postsecondary education, including competency-based education, short-term credentials, or new providers.

An updated HEA should encourage pilot programs on these alternative education methods, and federal financial aid should be allowed to cover the costs so that eligible students can participate. These pilots should include rigorous quality control and student protection processes to test alternative ways for delivering content, awarding credit, and determining qualified providers.

Congress needs to make reauthorizing the HEA a priority this legislative session to help students prepare for a constantly changing economy and the future of work. Our nation’s students, families, employers, and communities depend on it.