Breaking down the White House HEA plan

March 26, 2019
Story by Ernest Ezeugo

Last week, the White House released it’s set of recommendations for the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization. We’ve taken time to review the proposals, and it’s a mixed bag of encouraging and concerning ideas. Mostly, we’re deeply concerned that the proposal neglects major student priorities and offers solutions that don’t address the root of the problems students face.

Breaking it down

The proposal covers a lot of ground, but it focuses primarily on financial aid and loan reform, innovation, and pathways to the workforce. Here’s how we felt about it:

  • Innovation, accountability, and quality: The proposal makes several calls for promoting innovation in higher education, floating suggestions such as expanding Pell Grant eligibility to “high quality, short term programs” and creating pilot programs that direct nontraditional students to the private sector. It also makes a few calls for better accountability in higher education, an idea that hasn’t always aligned with the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda. We’re all for getting students the experience and credentials they need to be successful beyond higher education, but quality matters. We’d love to see the White House be more specific about their definition of high-quality programs and what it means to hold institutions accountable.
  • Federal Work Study: As part of the proposal’s emphasis making sure higher education meets the needs of today’s students, the White House calls for changes to the Federal Work Study grant program, which is hugely popular among student leaders. We agree that the Federal Work Study program should support career-oriented opportunities rather than just subsidize employment for on-campus jobs. We’re also happy to see this sign that the White House is open to rethinking formulas for poorly-distributed financial aid programs, instead of *looks at notes* cutting them altogether.  
  • Borrowing and loan limits: We’re concerned about the White House’s suggestions on borrowing. The proposal to place limits on the amounts students can borrow and cede authority over loan eligibility to institutions is a textbook case of addressing the symptoms instead of the larger problem. Financial aid counseling is fine, but paternalistically determining how much students can borrow doesn’t give us confidence that the administration understands that many students borrow to cover the costs of living, textbooks, and other necessary materials in addition to tuition. In some cases, the ability to borrow a little bit more can make the difference between graduating or dropping out. Of course, this is a complicated issue. But students clearly want a greater policy focus on reducing the need for borrowing in the first place.

What’s missing, and why does this matter

The proposal fails to even mention some of the foundational issues students are grappling with—campus safety, housing and food insecurity, and campus climate, to name a few. That matters because the HEA is the most comprehensive and influential set of provisions governing higher education, and the opportunity to update it doesn’t come every day: it was last reauthorized in 2008, and the interval of time between reauthorizations continues to increase.

In a letter representing more than 6.1 million students, student leaders called on policymakers to develop solutions that meet the scale of the barriers to student success, particularly for those from marginalized communities. Ultimately, we believe the White House and congressional leaders should listen to and engage students as negotiations about the HEA continue.

Get Involved

If you are interested in getting involved with this issue, reach out to NCLC at We’ll connect you with some awesome partner organizations who are working on this issue.

We will keep you posted as the proposal develops further, but we recommend you follow the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed for their comprehensive coverage.

© 2020 National Campus Leadership Council

© 2020 National Campus Leadership Council

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