The Higher Education Act: An opportunity to get it right


by Mary Ellen Flannery

As the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) heats up this summer, faculty, staff and students have the opportunity to get their voices heard.

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As NEA sees it, the landmark legislation provides a key opportunity for Congress to make higher education more affordable and accessible to all Americans; to enhance teacher preparation programs so that new teachers are fully prepared to teach on day one; and to improve transparency and accountability in higher education, making sure that federal aid dollars go only to colleges and universities with high educational standards.

Your comments and personal stories about college affordability, teacher preparation, and transparency are especially useful and can help NEA advocate for a new HEA that supports students. Did you or do rely on Pell Grants to pay for college? Did a college-access program, like TRIO, make a difference in your life? To share your story, click here.


First signed into law in 1965, the Higher Education Act governs the nation’s student-aid programs, while also providing direct aid to colleges and universities. It includes funding for Pell Grants, the cornerstone of federal aid for nearly 10 million of the poorest Americans, as well as the federal work-study program and college access programs like TRIO and GEAR UP. At the same time, the law also sets standards for the nation’s accreditation system, and uses federal funds to promote Congress’ priorities in higher education.

This year, the key issue is college affordability and the astronomical levels of student debt incurred by Americans seeking degrees. “My students are not statistics. They are real and their college debt is real,” said Theresa Montaño, president of NEA’s National Council for Higher Education, and a leader in the NEA Degrees Not Debt campaign.

Before Congress recessed this August, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a HEA proposal that focuses on college affordability and debt, as well as strengthening accountability and improving transparency. As Harkin put it,

For generations, a college education has been the pathway to the middle class, but new challenges are threatening that promise for many families in Iowa and across the country. The upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act… presents an historic opportunity for Congress to focus attention on college affordability and accountability, help borrowers with existing student debt, and increase transparency so students and families can make informed decisions.


NEA Student Program Chair David Tjaden meets with Sen. Tom Harkin
Outgoing NEA Student Program Chair David Tjaden meets with Sen. Tom Harkin

To help the millions of Americans who can’t afford skyrocketing tuition and fees, Harkin’s proposal calls for reinstating year-round Pell Grants, reductions in unfair fees to students borrowers, and a state-federal college affordability partnership to increase state funding for public higher education and lower the costs of tuition. His plan also would allow borrowers to discharge their loans during bankruptcy proceedings.

It’s a comprehensive approach to the reauthorization. Beyond the issue of college affordability, Harkin’s proposal also includes accountability provisions, particularly for for-profit colleges, including more disclosure from institutions about loan repayment rates; programs to improve teacher preparation; and funding for a demonstration project around competency-based education.

NEA strongly supports Harkin’s approach. Keeping in mind the $1.2 trillion that Americans owe in student debt, we have called on Congress to increase need-based student loan, make loans more affordable, and expand public-service loan forgiveness programs. NEA also is particularly interested in ways that the HEA can support teacher education. Teacher quality partnership grants, provided by HEA, can help create comprehensive residency programs that go beyond traditional student teaching and prepare teachers to be “profession ready” on their first day in the classroom.

Reader Comments

  1. What does the HEA have to say about the integrity of the faculty, and faculty working conditions? I don;t know, have not done the research, but it seems quite urgent that someone do so. COnsider–I see in a markup of the act the followinf entry:
    Sec. 255. ø20 u.s.c. 1035¿ adjunct teacher corps.
    What is that vileness? And much more is there, that we’re not aware of?
    Alan Trevithick, “Adjunct Core”
    Fordham University, Westchester Community College, LaGuardia Community College.

  2. Never mind the Higher Education Act -keep the Federal Government OUT of education! They only screw it up. I challenge anyone to review any of the major interventions by the feds into education over the last 50 years, and find even ONE that was a success in improving education. There are none, from busing to book content, and on and on.

    1. I can tell you one program: Project Upward Bound. It is one of the TRiO programs that takes kids through high school with weekly tutoring, twice a month Saturday Academies and a 6 week Summer Academy. The competition for the grants is fierce and only the programs that show continual success get them. I am the academic coordinator for one of those programs. It is my responsibility to see that our students are working hard, achieving goals and, most importantly, learning. Sure, there are many Federal programs that the Feds have totally messed up. At this point, this is one program that have gotten right.

  3. We once led the world in the number of college graduates. Today we lead the world in the number of college drop outs. Using SAT as a means to determine college worthiness if wrong. SAT measures basic math skills. It does not reflect the fact that for the last 3 years of high school a student might have learned about 5% of what he needed to learn. If we want to change the situation we will have to let Cambridge UK or any foreign organization administer the entrance exams because an American testing company can be corrupted by those who rake in the billions of dollars allocated for higher education. If we allow “debate” to continue covering up the nexus between testing companies and universities, new laws will only serve to provide new ways of funneling public funds into the pockets of unethical businessmen.

  4. As a college professor, it bothers me to see some students who are receiving financial aid fail a class, and then take it again and again, still receiving financial aid. Shouldn’t there be a limit on receiving financial aid for a class you keep taking? Not because you can’t do the work, but because you aren’t paying for it,what does it matter if you don’t attend class.
    There isn’t any incentive for some students to pass. Not when it isn’t costing them money. Please look into setting a limit for receiving financial aid for the same class.

    1. At my college, student only receive aide the first time for a class, if they fail it 1) affects their GPA 2) they have to pay for the class the next time. At least thats what it says from financial aid. I maintain a 3.8 GPA- so I wouldn’t know. My undergrad I had to retake a class and my aid was adjusted due to the retake. It really depends on the college I guess…

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