Rewrite of the Higher Education Act Will Roll Back Requirements for Colleges and Universities

Posted By Liz Seasholtz on March 31, 2015 at 11:39 am
Rewrite of the Higher Education Act Will Roll Back Requirements for Colleges and Universities

Different federal regulations, including the Higher Education Act, dictate various aspects of campus life, from financial aid to crime and sexual assault reporting. Many institutes of higher education, however, claim that they are buried under a mound of red tape – Vanderbilt University President Nicholas Zeppos asserts that it costs his university 14 million dollars a year to comply with federal regulations.

In response to similar criticism from other institutions, some lawmakers have committed to rewriting the Higher Education Act and reducing federal regulations on higher education, in order to reduce the burden on colleges and universities. The measure is led by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who has promised to finish the rewrite by the end of this year. The scheduled rewrite, which is being paired with a plan written by colleges and universities, will include hearings in April, a drafted bill by summer, and a vote in the Senate in the fall.

What is the Higher Education Act?

The Higher Education Act was introduced in 1965 and has been reauthorized approximately every five years since then. The purpose of the act was to provide low-interest student loans and grants, as well as programs for teacher training. With each reauthorization of and addition to the act, the process of procuring and administering financial aid has become more onerous and expensive for institutions.

The Higher Education Act is expected to be reauthorized again in 2015, with provisions to streamline financial aid and eliminate or modify other requirements. Proponents of the proposed plans see it as an opportunity to also address many other federal mandates that currently increase reporting requirements for colleges and universities. The expectation is that it will reduce the overall administrative costs associated with compliance, benefiting higher education programs and the students they serve.

The proposed changes

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander is spearheading the current reauthorization charge, along with the support of many colleges and universities. Senator Alexander is reaching beyond the current structure of the Higher Education Act to address what many view as an overabundance of rules and regulations coming from the Department of Education. A task force that includes Alexander, Senator Richard  Burr (R-NC), Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Senator Michael Bennett (D-CO), as well as the Chancellors of Vanderbilt the University of Maryland, recently released a 144-page report that expressed concerns that higher education laws have become vehicles for policy-making that have nothing to do with education.

Their proposed Higher Education Act amendments would in part:

  • Streamline the student loan process to reflect the original intent of the Act
  • Reduce student loan application requirements
  • Eliminate the requirement to provide students with voter registration paperwork
  • Reduce requirements for reporting crimes or sexual assaults
  • Repeal “gainful employment” rules

In addition, the task force also targeted regulations introduced by the Obama administration regarding the governance of for-profit colleges, teacher preparation programs, the definition of a credit hour and state oversight of colleges that operate across state lines. Proponents of the changes claim that the drastic overhaul is necessary to reduce costs and provide access to higher education to more students.


Despite the support of many colleges and universities, others have expressed concerns that it’s the institutions who are most heavily regulated that are seeking fewer regulations. While many organizations have agreed that regulations could be streamlined to become more effective, they are worried that key protections will be lost and that the financial savings will not be passed along to the students.

The largest area of concern is the proposed changes to campus crime rules. While many safety advocates agree that some of the reporting requirements are burdensome, most expressed a desire to keep key components in place. Colleges and universities are already criticized for under-reporting crimes, especially those involving sexual assault, and some worry that recent gains made in this area will be lost.

Most participants in the debate surrounding the Higher Education Act agree on one thing: there is too much paperwork and too many regulatory requirements for colleges and universities. However, some believe that the act proposed by Senator Alexander presents a roadmap to the future, while others believe it goes too far in reducing regulatory oversight of higher education programs.

Liz Seasholtz

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