How Two Bills Stack Up Against JFF’s Vision for a Better Higher Education Act


Two bills that would update the Higher Education Act are circulating through Congress. JFF took a close look at them to see how they compare with our vision of a better HEA.

Published nov. 27, 2019

There’s been a flurry of activity in Congress in recent months over proposals to update the Higher Education Act (HEA), the federal law governing higher education across the country.

In September, Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, introduced the Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019, a package of eight bipartisan proposals that would update components of the HEA. In October, Representative Bobby Scott, chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, introduced the College Affordability Act (CAA), a comprehensive vision for updating HEA that is supported by House Democrats. The House committee passed the CAA on October 31 and it advanced to the full House for consideration.

Since the introduction of these two bills, JFF has taken a closer look at how they line up against our own higher education recommendations, which are designed to transform the nation’s postsecondary education system to keep up with the changing demands of the U.S. economy.

Here’s how the two bills fare:

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Improve Education and Labor Market Data

Today’s students need better information about the education and labor market outcomes of postsecondary programs. JFF recommends that federal policy enable the development of easily accessible and understandable data and systems that link education and workforce data and provide information on student outcomes by program, including program completion rates and labor market outcomes of program graduates (i.e., average wages, job placement rates, etc.). Policy also should enhance career navigation systems that make it easier for individuals to find accelerated routes to industry-recognized postsecondary credentials and good jobs.

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Make Financial Aid Flexible

Today’s students need flexible financial aid policies that will make it easier for them to apply for aid and ensure that the aid covers the full costs of postsecondary education. This also means that federal financial aid must be accessible for valued accelerated pathways, including high-quality, short-term programs. JFF recommends changes to the HEA that simplify the process of applying for aid and ensure that aid is accessible to a wider range of in-need students, including underprepared learners, adult learners, and incarcerated students.

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Expand Accelerated Pathways

Today’s students don’t have time to waste. JFF recommends that federal policy encourage acceleration strategies to help students meet their career goals efficiently. These strategies include guided pathways models that map the fastest paths to credentials, credit for prior learning, competency-based models that focus on skill attainment, and high-quality, short-term programs that lead to industry-recognized credentials and that can lead to higher-level credentials and degrees.

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Strengthen Supports

Today’s students are juggling multiple demands, including part-time jobs and family responsibilities. JFF recommends that federal policy ensure that students have the guidance and supports they need to succeed in postsecondary education, such as access to affordable child care, transportation, food, and housing.

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Focus on Work

Today’s students need work experiences that can be a springboard to their next career step and allow them to earn money while attending classes. JFF recommends that federal policy expand equitable access to comprehensive and relevant work-based learning experiences, including apprenticeship and work-study opportunities.

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Expand Evidence-Based Practices Through a Federal-State Partnership

Today’s students need more than access to postsecondary education, they also need support in making it to the finish line and obtaining high-value credentials and degrees. JFF recommends that federal policy develop a federal-state partnership to encourage the use of strategies that help students persist, complete their postsecondary credentials, and go on to succeed in the labor market.

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Both the Student Aid Improvement Act and the College Affordability Act contain critical provisions for improving our nation’s higher education system. But much more needs to be done to ensure that students can access and complete postsecondary education so they are prepared to succeed and prosper in the labor market.

JFF will continue to work with both sides in Congress to come up with compromise legislation that will lead to a timely and comprehensive update of the HEA.