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4 Ways that Congress Should Update the Higher Education Act

The Higher Education Act hasn’t been updated for nearly 11 years. It’s time to make the law work for today’s students, and JFF’s policy team has the solutions.

January 10, 2019

At a Glance

The Higher Education Act hasn’t been updated for nearly 11 years. It’s time to make the law work for today’s students, and JFF’s policy team has the solutions.

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

In the second blog in a series on how the 116th Congresscan makebold bets on America’s workers and learners, JFF’s policy team tooka closer look at the federal HigherEducation Act (HEA) of 2008 and found that it is in serious need ofan update.

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The HEA is the law that governs our nation’s higher educationprograms and manages a $120 billion financial aid portfolio. But after 11years, the HEA is outdated. It’s primarily structured to serve first-time andfull-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 besidesschoolwork, such as child care and supporting a family.

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

JFF is committed to ensuring economic advancement for all and hassolutions 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 ournation’s higher education system helps a broad range of individualssuccessfully access and complete postsecondary education and prosper in theeconomy.

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

1. Improve HigherEducation Information

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

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

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

Financial aid iscritical for low-income students pursuing postsecondary education. For manystudents, especially low-income and first-generation college students, theprocess of applying for federal and state financial aid using the FreeApplication 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 June2018. This means that far too many students missed out on the opportunity to seeif they qualify for financial aid.

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

Congress shouldalso maintain access to financial aid for students who haven’t completed highschool but have demonstrated their ability to succeed in college-levelcoursework through the “Abilityto Benefit” provision in HEA.  The actshould also be updated to allow financial aid to cover the cost of priorlearning assessments, which give students credits for what they’ve alreadylearned 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.

3. Connectto Careers

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

JFF recommends that the HEA be strengthened to encourage moreopportunities for work-based learning, stronger connections between work-studypositions and students’ career goals, and better data collection on labormarket outcomes of all students.

4. SpurInnovation and Test Alternative Delivery Methods

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

An updated HEA should encourage pilot programs on thesealternative education methods, and federal financial aid should be allowed to coverthe costs so that eligible students can participate. These pilots should includerigorous quality control and student protection processes to test alternativeways for delivering content, awarding credit, and determining qualifiedproviders.

Congress needs to make reauthorizing the HEA a priority thislegislative session to help students prepare for a constantly changing economyand the future of work. Our nation’s students, families, employers, and communitiesdepend on it.

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