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Higher education reauthorization on Congressional fall agenda

On the fall agenda for Congress is the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). HEA was originally enacted in 1965 during the Lyndon Johnson Administration and was last reauthorized in 2008. While HEA has received significant interest in the past few sessions of Congress, its passage has stalled under partisan rancor.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnsonsigns the Higher Education Act Nov. 8, 1965.  (AP Photo)
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnsonsigns the Higher Education Act Nov. 8, 1965. (AP Photo)

Even though HEA has been operating without being reauthorized, its reauthorization is important because it sends a message to the Appropriators that the program is a priority for Congress. Under the powers of Congress, a program or agency is “authorized”to operate and exist. Most program authorizations are designed to expire every few years and must be reauthorized. The process to reauthorize a program allows Congress an opportunity to examine if the program needs to be changed, modernized or possibly sunset (e.g., the Board of Tea Appeals, Board of Economic Warfare, etc.).

Authorizations can also include long-term spending plans for a program. However, an authorization is not necessary for a program to receive federal funding, nor does it guarantee a level of funding. Appropriations bills determine independently the level of funding a program is to receive in a given year. An unauthorized program may continue to receive funding, but some “fiscal hawks” in Congress are increasingly threatening to sunset unauthorized programs.

Many of the provisions, or Titles, of HEA will have minimal direct impact on libraries, but a few key areas warrant attention from the library community. How Congress views these programs may impact libraries at colleges and universities, particularly in two areas:

Title IV of HEA authorizes a broad array of aid programs to assist students in financing a higher education. The programs authorized under this title are the primary sources of federal aid to support higher education. Students who work in libraries or are enrolled in degree programs such as Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) programs may qualify for loan relief. The two most impactful HEA authorized programs for libraries are the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (allows debt forgiveness for borrowers working in public service careers for 10 years, including libraries), and the Perkins Loan Cancellation (allows loan forgiveness for qualifying borrowers who work in school or tribal libraries or other educational settings).

Titles III and V authorize grants to higher education institutions that serve a high number of low-income and minority students (including Historically Black Colleges, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic-Serving Institutions). These schools can utilize federal grants to meet a range of needs, including the purchase of library books and materials and the construction, renovation and improvement of classrooms and libraries. ALA opposes any efforts to reduce support for underserved students.

Programs to support higher education libraries and MLIS students are valuable assets at colleges and universities and support the mission of ALA. HEA reauthorization is likely to consume much of the higher education agenda for months, and the ALA Washington Office will keep you informed as these issues develop.


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Kevin Maher

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