The Higher Education Act of 1992: Skills, Constraints, and the Politics of Higher Education

By Hannah, Susan B. | Journal of Higher Education, September-October 1996 | Go to article overview

The Higher Education Act of 1992: Skills, Constraints, and the Politics of Higher Education


Hannah, Susan B., Journal of Higher Education


The 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA '92) is a case study in the consequences of an incremental and fragmented federal policy-making process. HEA '92 is important because it authorized what by now is more than three-quarters of all financial aid available to students enrolled in postsecondary education in the United States (College Board, 1993). And the politics of HEA '92 are important because they resulted in a significant shift in federal policy from an historic commitment to promote access to postsecondary education through grants based on need to a broader strategy of insured loans regardless of family income.

The policy reorientation culminating in HEA '92 reflects the fragmented institutional structure and pluralistic civic culture of the American political system. Incremental decision making means that only unusual coalitions can produce policies that deviate significantly from the status quo. Similarly, the uneven distribution of resources means that only exceptional conditions can produce and maintain policies like need-based grants, which reallocate wealth to the disadvantaged. Such unusual coalitions and conditions simply were not present in the reauthorization of HEA '92. Shifts in the relative power of influential actors and constraints in the political, economic, social and intellectual environment surrounding HEA '92 prevented the mobilization of forces strong enough to stem the moderating tide. Figure 1 tells the story at a glance: the already widening gap between grants and loans increased exponentially with the adoption of HEA '92.

In their study of the important 1972 amendments to HEA, Wolanin and Gladieux (1976) characterized the higher education policy process as "incremental in three senses: It occurs within the limits of a slowly evolving political culture; it is built on and related to existing policy; and it draws from existing policy models." Within this evolutionary process, specific policy outcomes are shaped by the "skills and intentions" of key participants and the "constraints and crosscurrents" of the political environment in which they work" (pp. 257, 265). The reauthorization of HEA in 1992 reaffirms this incremental and environmentally and politically constrained decision-making pattern.

The first section of the article reviews the conditions necessary for producing and sustaining significant policy change in the federal policy process. The second section uses the history of HEA to illustrate the rise and fall of such conditions in the evolution of higher education financial aid policy. The third section outlines how the "constraints and crosscurrents" of the political environment and the "skills and intentions" of principal actors led to HEA '92's specific policy outcomes. A final section speculates on the future.

Based in Washington D.C. in the Fall of 1992, I was fortunate to have the cooperation of a number of key HEA participants, interviewing more than fifty Congressional staff, higher education association lobbyists, Department of Education and White House officials, and policy consultants who were directly involved in the reauthorization process. I asked them to talk about the critical steps, issues, and players whose positions were included in the final bill and why. Approached when events were still fresh, they provided documents and eye witness accounts that greatly enriched my understanding and gave me a new appreciation of the power of ideas and environment as well as individual action on shaping policy options. I filled out the story from an online legislative history (Legi-Slate, 1992), House, Senate, and conference committee reports; tracked HEA'92 through releases of Education Daily ("The education community's independent daily news service"), and association newsletters (e.g., American Council on Education's Higher Education & National Affairs); and worked from special studies and reports prepared by the Department of Education, Congressional committee staff, and higher education associations. …

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