Renewing the Promise of the Higher Education Act: Seven Principles for Reform

Today, New America joined with a coalition of national organizations to call for a fresh conversation around the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA). The coalition includes a dozen organizations with distinct constituencies – from vulnerable students to Fortune 500 companies to state and local governments. We span the political spectrum, but are united in our commitment to strengthening connections between education, social mobility and economic development. We have come together around seven principles for reform that we urge policymakers to consider as they prepare to reauthorize one of our county’s most important laws.

Few pieces of federal legislation have done more to open the doors of opportunity to millions of Americans than HEA. The law has benefitted generations of students who might not otherwise have afforded college. It has also benefitted our democracy and economy, providing the basis for a highly educated citizenry and workforce. But as we approach HEA’s 50th anniversary, it’s time to take stock of how well the law is meeting the needs of students today. A lot has changed in fifty years. A lot has even changed since the last reauthorization in 2008, which happened just before the Great Recession laid bare the devastating consequences of not having college-level skills and credentials. And while enrollments in higher education have grown steadily over the last few decades, too many students either never graduate or do not acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. We believe that part of the problem stems from our federal higher education polices which need to be re-thought and re-engineered for a new age.

As policymakers prepare to reauthorize HEA, it is important they take stock of the social and economic trends shaping both the supply and demand of higher education. In particular:

  • Students aren’t who you think they are: They come from increasingly diverse backgrounds, most do not live on campus, and many are older, already working, and juggling family responsibilities.
  • Jobs aren’t what they used to be: More jobs than ever before require a college credential, while job tenure and security have both declined.
  • The transition from college to a career is a lot harder: While college graduates have fared far better than their counterparts with only a high school degree, they earn less, take longer to find good jobs, and are much more likely to be saddled with students loans than any generation of students before them.
  • The cost of college has risen dramatically: By one estimate, the cost of college has increased twelvefold since 1980 and there is no indication that prices will go down anytime soon. Rising tuition, in turn, is driving demand for loans and the increased use of borrowing raises the stakes of higher education for both students and taxpayers. Our policies need to do more to protect both.
Together, these changes have transformed the context of higher education in ways that require updates to our federal policies. Our postsecondary education system must serve a larger and more diverse population of students, and it must prepare them for an economy that is far more demanding and less forgiving than in years past. We offer the following guiding principles for reform which we believe will make higher education more responsive to the pressing needs of students for education that is affordable, timely, personally enriching, and valuable to the larger community in which they live and work. Specifically:
  1. Outcomes are what matter. Institutions should be rewarded for graduating students - not just enrolling them. And we all need to know more about the employment and earnings of students once they leave college.
  2. Federal financial aid policies need to be more flexible. The federal student aid programs do too little to support students who are older, returning to school, or seeking specific skills and credentials for work.
  3. Higher education needs to do more to connect learning and work. We need to get rid of the artificial distinction between learning in the classroom and learning at work. HEA reauthorization should encourage institutions to expand experiential learning opportunities and foster more opportunities for work-based learning.
  4. Accreditation processes need to be more transparent and rigorous. Our quality assurance system is fragmented, duplicative, secretive, and overly focused on institutional inputs and processes rather than program quality and student outcomes.
  5. Quality assurance processes should focus more on programs and credentials. We need better ways to ensure that what students are learning will help them succeed in life and in the labor market. Employers, industry associations, professional societies, and other key stakeholders outside of higher education need to play a bigger role in ensuring program quality.
  6. Higher education is not an island; HEA shouldn’t be either. The reauthorization of HEA creates opportunities to better align the law, particularly the rules surrounding access to the federal student aid programs, with other federal education and training programs like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Carl D Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.
  7. Policy should encourage innovation and experimentation. HEA should provide safe spaces for experimentation with new approaches to instruction, quality assurance and financial aid.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 was a historic and visionary investment in our future. The law reflected our commitment to equal opportunity and the belief that higher education strengthens our democracy and is a source of social mobility and economic security. Fifty years later, the linkages between education, democracy, and economic opportunity have never been stronger – or more fraught with risk. Reauthorization offers the chance to renew our country’s commitment to higher education for all who seek it, while also helping institutions adapt to the fast-paced, technology-driven global economy that their students will face at graduation. If we can renew the promise of HEA, the United States stands poised to reap the rewards of a global economy that runs on advanced technologies and the skills that go with them. We hope that policymakers and the higher education community will come together to seize this historic opportunity.

Our coalition is made up of the following organizations:

  • Business Roundtable
  • Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)
  • Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)
  • Committee for Economic Development
  • HR Policy Association
  • Jobs for the Future
  • National Association of System Heads
  • National Governors Association
  • National Skills Coalition
  • New America
  • Skills for America’s Future
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Join the conversation on Twitter by using #HigherEdReform."


Mary Alice McCarthy is the director of the Center on Education and Skills with the Education Policy program at New America. Her work examines the intersection between higher education, workforce development, and job training policies

Rachel Marlowe is a former intern for the Education Policy program at New America with the Higher Education team.