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HELP Chairman Harkin Unveils Bill to Reauthorize Higher Education Act

Higher Education Affordability Act Would Reduce College Costs, Hold Schools More Accountable to Students and Taxpayers, and Help Families Make Informed Decisions About College

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, today introduced the Higher Education Affordability Act (HEAA), his bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. The bill takes a comprehensive approach to rein in rising college costs and ensure the system is better serving students and families.

After receiving thoughtful feedback from stakeholders in the higher education community throughout the summer, Chairman Harkin incorporated several recommendations that strengthen many of the measures he previously proposed. Harkin’s bill focuses on four main goals: increasing college affordability, helping struggling borrowers, strengthening accountability, and improving transparency of college costs and quality.

“A college education has long been an essential pathway to the middle class, with states, the federal government, students and families all doing their part when it comes to costs” Harkin said. “Unfortunately this history of shared responsibility has eroded, forcing students and families to pay more than ever before. At the same time, a lack of accountability and transparency makes deciding where to go to school and how to pay for it a far more confusing and potentially risky process. Today I am introducing the Higher Education Affordability Act, which makes critical reforms to put students and families back in the driver’s seat. The stakes have never been higher to ensure our postsecondary education system is working for all Americans and I urge my colleagues to join me in moving this critical bill forward.”

The HELP Committee has convened 12 bipartisan hearings to discuss the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the main law governing institutions of higher education in the United States. In these hearings, the Committee heard from students, parents, educators, and other stakeholders on how to improve our higher education system to ensure that it is accessible and affordable for all Americans.

Focusing on the major issues in higher education, Harkin’s Higher Education Affordability Act includes the following provisions:

Increasing Affordability and Reducing College Costs for Students Now By:

  • Creating a State-Federal College Affordability Partnership to increase state investment in public higher education and lower the costs of tuition for students.
  • Reinstating year-round Pell Grants to enable students to get their degrees faster.
  • Creating a “Pell Bonus” Demonstration project to incentivize institutions to enroll and graduate more low-income students.
  • Creating a competitive grant program to fund partnerships between industry and two-year colleges to help students gain skills valued in the labor market.
  • Creating a state competitive grant program to drive statewide innovations and reforms of higher education systems to increase college access and persistence. 
  • Eliminating origination fees on federal Direct Loans in order to save students money.
  • Authorizing the First in the World (FITW) program to provide competitive funding directly to public and private non-profit institutions to test out new innovative practices to help institutions decrease costs and increase college completion.
  • Expanding access to dual enrollment and early college high school programs to help students earn college credit while they are in high school.
  • Reauthorizing the campus-based aid programs (SEOG, Work Study and the Perkins loan programs) with reforms that better reward institutions that are serving students well.

Tackling the Student Loan Crisis by Helping Borrowers Better Manage Debt by:

  • Strengthening student loan servicing standards through the creation of common-sense consumer protections.
  • Streamlining repayment plans to create a single income-based repayment option with affordable monthly payments for struggling borrowers.
  • Helping severely delinquent borrowers avoid default by automatically enrolling them into income-based repayment.
  • Allowing private student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy.
  • Reforming abuses in the collections process and reducing unfair fees that hurt the most vulnerable borrowers.

Holding Schools Accountable to Students and Taxpayers By:

  • Providing students and policy makers with more meaningful disclosures and accountability metrics from schools, including loan repayment rates.
  • Establishing a risk-sharing commission to explore holding low-performing institutions financially responsible for poor student outcomes.
  • Protecting taxpayers by changing the 90-10 rule for for-profit schools to 85-15.
  • Guaranteeing that federal education dollars are not used on advertising and marketing.
  • Creating a student complaint system to better track harmful practices and help students get relief.
  • Authorizing several programs to reform and improve teacher and school leader preparation.
  • Establishing enhanced civil penalties for institutions that misrepresent their admission requirements, the transferability of credits from the institution, and the ability of students to sit for licensing exams or obtain certifications required as a precondition of employment. 
  • Providing state attorneys general with the ability to bring suit for such misrepresentations.
  • Strengthening existing prohibitions on incentive compensation.
  • Creating strong programmatic accreditation rules for programs designed to prepare students for careers requiring licensing or other certification.

HelpingStudentsand Families Make Informed Choices By:

  • Providing notification to middle and high school students of their potential eligibility for federal aid.
  • Providing better up-front information and disclosures to prospective students.
  • Standardizing the financial aid award letter to help students and their families better understand financial aid packages when deciding where to go to college.
  • Strengthening entrance and exit loan counseling by ensuring more comprehensive and easy to understand information is given to borrowers.
  • Creating a student unit record system to better track college completion, cost, and progression at each institution.
  • Publishing finalized accreditation documents and audits to increase transparency for students and policymakers.

Additional Reforms to Better Assist Underserved and Vulnerable Students Include:

Supporting Students with Disabilities By:

  • Creating two national technical assistance centers. One to help high school students with disabilities and their families to identify schools that support the needs of students with disabilities. And another to help institutions better provide the physical, program, and instructional accommodations to support students with disabilities.
  • Creating a national data center to collect information about the recruitment, retention, graduation, and employment of students with disabilities related to their higher education participation.
  • Requiring institutions to ensure their instructional materials are accessible to students with disabilities.
  • Expanding the Transition Program for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) to encourage more programs for students with intellectual disabilities at institutions and to better disseminate the information learned by institutions about the development and operation of programs for students with intellectual disabilities at the post-secondary level.
  • Creating post-secondary programs for students who are deaf-blind in order to develop the accommodations necessary to better serve this group of students.
  • Creating a commission to collect information about the current needs and experiences of students with psychiatric disabilities to improve recruitment, retention and support for this population.

Supporting Students at Minority Serving Institutions By:

  • Establishing Innovation Grants for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to provide additional support for these institutions with grants to support minority student achievement and college completion.
  • Requiring MSIs to demonstrate progress toward implementing the activities described in each grantee’s application for these awards.
  • Lowering the required institutional match from 100 percent to 75 percent to help these institutions grow their endowment.

Improving the Student Loan System for Military Families By:

  • Requiring all institutions with more than 100 student veterans to:

             - Designate certain faculty to serve as the point of contact for veterans.

             - Establish a working group responsible for veterans issues.

             - Publicize a plan to ensure that disability services are available to meet the                   needs of wounded warriors.

             - Evaluate and maximize the number of credits students can receive from                       military training and service.

  • Simplifying the requirements for servicemembers to qualify for military specific student loan protections.
  • Ensuring better resources and protections for servicemembers with student loans by strengthening loan servicing standards.

The bill summary, bill text, and bill section-by-section are available online.

As Chairman of the HELP Committee, Senator Harkin has been a strong voice for college affordability, accountability, and access. In 2012, Chairman Harkin led Senate passage of the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act, to reduce interest rates on all federal student loans. In 2010, Chairman Harkin fought to pass the Health and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010, which eliminated billions of dollars in wasteful subsidies to banks and redirected that money to students and families in the form of increased Pell Grants to low-income college students, putting the priorities of students and families ahead of subsidies to lenders. Prior to the HEA reauthorization process, Harkin also chaired four hearings in 2012 and 2013 on college affordability.