Legislation Updating HEA Is Blocked on Senate Floor

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A bill including piecemeal updates to the Higher Education Act shows no signs of moving forward as senators clash over funding for minority-serving institutions.

On November 5, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) blocked Senator Lamar Alexander's (R-TN) request for unanimous approval to pass his Student Aid Improvement Act (S. 2557), a piecemeal education package that would narrowly update the Higher Education Act (HEA). The Student Aid Improvement Act is currently the only HEA reauthorization package up for consideration by the upper chamber.

The bill, introduced on September 26, includes eight provisions and is supported on a bipartisan basis by a variety of senators. The Student Aid Improvement Act would mandate $255 million each year be provided to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The Act would guarantee the funding indefinitely. Additionally, the Student Aid Improvement Act would simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form by reducing the number of questions and allowing students to use IRS-collected data to answer portions of the form. The bill also contains provisions to expand the Federal Pell Grant Program by increasing the maximum dollar amount a student can receive and extending access to grants to parole-eligible prisoners and students who are enrolled in short-term skills and job-training programs. The legislation would be paid for by ensuring that students who opt to pay back their student loans under the income-based repayment plan pay the full 10 percent of their discretionary income as the law stipulates.

In his press release announcing the legislation, Senator Alexander identified three additional bipartisan bills that he would like to see added to the Student Aid Improvement Act at a later date.1 Among these bills is the College Transparency Act (S. 800), which would create a student unit record system to track student performance at specific colleges and universities, which in turn would allow new and potential students and their families to more readily compare programs across institutions. Senator Alexander also pointed to the Education of the Deaf Act, which would reauthorize Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and the Educational Opportunity and Success Act (S. 1803), which would reauthorize the Federal TRIO Programs to help disadvantaged students enroll and succeed in a college or university program.

Democrats are opposing Senator Alexander's bill due to his continued objections to the Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education (FUTURE) Act (S. 1279). The FUTURE Act, which focused exclusively on STEM program funding for HBCUs and only provided the funding for two years, was passed by the House earlier this year, and it continues to have strong bipartisan support in both chambers. Democrats have requested unanimous approval for the bill four times, but Senator Alexander has objected to passage each time, halting the bill's progress. Senator Alexander claims his opposition to the legislation stems from his belief that the Senate should provide a long-term solution for HBCUs and MSIs—something that he believes the Student Aid Improvement Act achieves.

Although it is unclear what will happen with these two bills and HEA reauthorization generally, Senator Alexander has indicated he will continue to push for his bill to be considered and passed through the Senate. EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor the progress of both bills through the Senate and beyond.

For more information about policy issues impacting higher education IT, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Policy Spotlight blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Policy page.


  1. Lamar Alexander United States Senator for Tennessee, "Alexander Introduces Long-Term Solution to Fund Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Other Minority Serving Institutions," press release, September 26, 2019.

Kathryn Branson is a Senior Associate with Ulman Public Policy.

© 2019 Kathryn Branson. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.