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The Higher Education Act: What Is It and Why Should We Care?

President Johnson signs the Higher Education Act

President Johnson signs the Higher Education Act.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act is an amended version of the Higher Education Act, first passed by Congress, and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1965. This act needs to be reauthorized by Congress approximately every six years. In the 2008 reauthorization, this act was renamed the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act was due August 15, 2014.  However, Congress did not finish the reauthorization of this act in 2014 and, to date, has still not completed this reauthorization.

So why should we care? Certainly if we worried about everything Congress was supposed to do and has not finished, we would not sleep at night. Here are three reasons you should care about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act:

  1. The Higher Education Act established, and the Higher Education Opportunity Act maintains, the federal financial aid program for our students.


Title IV of the Higher Education Act established the federal financial aid program for students, and subsequent reauthorizations of the act have maintained this program. The Higher Education Act also established (and the Higher Education Opportunity Act updated) the policies for institutions to be eligible to participate in the federal financial aid program. For example, to be eligible for Title IV funds, institutions must be accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency (DePaul’s accrediting agency is the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association.) This act officially recognizes regional accreditors as the gatekeepers of educational quality in the United States. The 2008 reauthorization occurred during Margaret Spellings’ term as Secretary of Education. Many feared that Margaret Spellings would recommend a standardized testing system (akin to the K-12 system used for the No Child Left Behind Act). Secretary Spellings appointed a committee called the Commission on the Future of Higher Education to explore, among other things, the issue of educational quality and accountability. While the final report of this group was critical of accreditation agencies, it did not recommend a system of standardized testing, but rather maintained the regional accreditation system. However, with students viewing themselves as consumers and education as a commodity, that wolf is still knocking on our door.


  1. In addition to the financial aid program, the Higher Education Act (and subsequently, the Higher Education Opportunity Act) includes several other elements.


The Higher Education Act of 1965 also provided funding for extension and continuing education programs, allocated money to enhance library collections, and included provisions for strengthening developing institutions, improving the quality of teaching, and improving undergraduate instruction. Examples of other programs provided for by the original Higher Education Act or included in amendments to the act in subsequent reauthorizations include, TRIO, federal funding for STEM programs, and Gear Up (a community partnership program in which DePaul participates).


  1. Congress has a history of packaging other policies and regulations into previous reauthorizations of this act.

In fact, in anticipation of the upcoming reauthorization, a Senate-appointed committee has released a report on the impact of federal regulations on higher education and provided recommendations they hope will be considered during the next reauthorization. Some examples of regulations in the current Higher Education Opportunity Act include requirements to track and report crime statistics and combat illegal file sharing.

Congress has already introduced five bills associated with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act

House Bills:

Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project (H.R. 3136)

Empowering Students through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (H.R. 4984)

Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (H.R. 4983)

Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act (H.R. 1287)

Senate Bills:

Higher Education Affordability Act

Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act

Ultimately, the decisions Congress makes in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act will have very real implications for all of higher education, regardless of where, specifically, we work within DePaul University. It is critical we know what the federal government is discussing and what actions they intend to take as they complete the important work of reauthorizing the Higher Education Opportunity Act.


Interested in Reading More?

American Council on Education’s Higher Education Act Website

Inside Higher Education Articles

Obama’s Higher Ed Home Stretch

Caution and Competency

With Deregulatory Slant, A Higher Ed Act Push

Alexander’s Higher Ed Act Agenda

Chronicle of Higher Education Articles

What You Need to Know About Reauthorization

House and Senate Offer Different Visions for Renewal of Higher Education Act


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