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Higher Education Act

Last Updated: 2018

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) was enacted during the Great Society, when the federal government simultaneously expanded its role in the K-12 sector with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (See “ESEA” in this volume.) The HEA and the ESEA represented an unprecedented federal intervention into education, as both higher and K-12 education had historically been the domain of state policy.

The initial HEA legislation embodied the spirit of its times: to promote equal opportunity for underprivileged individuals. Since 1965, reauthorizations to this education legislation have occurred at least once per decade. The central focus of the HEA’s programs (and its subsequent amendments) has been to increase access and persistence in higher education, particularly for students from low-income families. The major programs fall primarily into four categories: (1) student financial aid; (2) services to help students better prepare for, access, and succeed in education beyond high school; (3) aid to higher education institutions; and (4) aid to improve teacher training efforts in colleges and universities.

There are seven titles in the HEA that are up for reauthorization each time Congress amends the HEA: (1) Title I, General Provisions; (2) Title II, Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants; (3) Title III, Institutional Aid; (4) Title IV, Student Assistance; (5) Title V, Developing Institutions; (6) Title VI, International Education Programs; and (7) Title VII, Graduate and Postsecondary Improvement Programs. The nucleus of the HEA is the student aid programs that are authorized under Title IV including grant aid, loans, and work-study assistance. The Pell Grant program is the largest Title IV student aid program and is the largest governmental appropriation for students with need who want to pursue a higher education.

Historically, Congress has implemented incremental modifications to the HEA rather than sweeping, comprehensive changes. These marginal adjustments in the administration and funding of HEA programs, however, impact a large number of students and institutions. In the 1970’s, for example, the federal government was urged to expand support to a broader range of students. In the 1980’s, the federal government increased institution-level accountability measures for student loan default rates through the HEA. Important financial aid–related policy changes enacted in reauthorization efforts in the 1990’s included, but were not limited to, higher limits on loan borrowing, expanded eligibility for student-loan programs that increased the number of middle- and upper-income borrowers, and a reduction in interest rates for borrowers. In 2006, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education (created by US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and often referred to as simply the “Spellings Commission”), released its findings. Their report—which received extensive media coverage—criticized colleges and universities for a lack of effort to control costs and restrain rising tuition, and for failing to focus on what their students actually learned. Mirroring changes in the K-12 sector initiated by the No Child Left behind Act of 2002 (see “No Child Left Behind” in this volume), the report called on the higher education community to take steps to measure and report student outcomes. It also called for a major expansion of the Pell Grant program and for the distribution of more financial aid to the neediest students.

The bipartisan 2008 reauthorization of HEA embraced many of these recommendations as it sought to push colleges to hold down tuition costs, simplify the federal financial aid application (FAFSA), and make achievement outcomes more transparent for students and parents. It also merged several existing teacher preparation grant programs into a single funding stream and called for expanded performance accountability for these programs and more collaboration between them and local school districts.

Reflecting on the history of HEA, Forbes Magazine observed that it “has evolved into an extraordinarily costly and complex conundrum which has puzzled even the most acute observers.” They note that federal aid under Title IV of the Act surpassed $169 billion in 2013, double the amount from the previous decade. During the same period, federal loans rose to $101 billion (up 86%) and federal grants came to exceed $47 billion (up 134%). The number of students receiving Pell Grants, meanwhile, grew from 4.8 to 8.8 million as spending increased from $14.8 billion to $32.3 billion.

The Obama administration continued the push for greater transparency and accountability in higher education by launching a controversial college navigation and scorecard tool in 2013. The higher education community mobilized against the effort, however, and used its considerable political power to scale it back. The HEA was due to be reauthorized again in 2013 but disagreements between Congressional Republicans and Democrats over Pell funding and eligibility, the student loan repayment process, and how to structure college accountability precluded legislative compromise and led to a series of extensions that kept existing programs in place. New momentum emerged behind the HEA reauthorization process in early 2018, however, with both Republicans and Democrats expressing a desire to reign in college tuition costs and increase transparency and accountability around student outcomes. It seemed inevitable that higher education federalism—like K-12 education federalism before it—would undergo a significant transformation.

SEE ALSO: EducationGreat SocietyJohnson, Lyndon B.


Christopher P. Loss, Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); Suzanne Mettler, Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream (New York: Basic Books, 2014); John R. Thelin, A History of American Higher Education (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); “A Look Back at the Higher Education Act,” Forbes Magazine, December 3, 2014.