Public Policy Update

We have all heard the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And while that may be true for some things, it just "ain't so" when it comes to federal policy. Each year, Congress sits down to tinker with federal laws on the books and--regardless of how seemingly perfect a law may be at a given time--during the life of a law, the world around us changes. This renewal opportunity comes once every few years or so, but it presents lawmakers and the public with an important opportunity to take into account what is new and what has changed, and in the end to make our federal laws more relevant.

Congress has a busy agenda for its 108th session, including consideration of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. This law dictates federal post-secondary education policy. It is a complex law that is home to a number of familiar programs, including Pell Grants, Stafford Loans and Work-Study. HEA programs provide about $67 billion in aid and are intended to make the dream of college available to those who might not otherwise have a chance to pursue it. The law provides the framework for distributing resources--grants, loans and other forms of aid--to institutions of higher education, college students, high school students and nonprofit organizations.

APA has some obvious interest in this law. For example, APA accredits psychology programs, and this law defines accreditation procedures. In addition, APA advocates for HEA programs that provide assistance to students studying psychology.

Other APA interests in HEA are less apparently linked to its mission, but no less relevant to the APA goals of advancing psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare. These interests include HEA authorized: support for institutions like historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and community colleges; Trio and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), which provide student support and extracurricular learning opportunities for low-income, first-generation college students; teacher-quality provisions to assist prospective teachers with teaching preparation; antidrug and antibinge drinking provisions; campus-crime provisions; and other federal financial aid programs that support undergraduate and graduate study.

So what has changed since 1998 when the Higher Education Act was last reauthorized? A lot. The number of students pursuing careers in psychology has declined in recent years. That may not be so surprising given that the cost of pursuing a graduate degree has increased. In 1999-2000, nearly 72 percent of all doctoral students received financial support. When compared with other fields, a larger percentage of psychology doctorate recipients (19 percent) reported graduating with debt over $30,000. HEA can provide greater education assistance to students, including psychology students. APA has made recommendations to both Congress and the Bush administration to extend HEA loan cancellation to psychologists working in areas of national need and to make graduate aid available to students in the psychological sciences.

Psychological researchers have made significant scientific discoveries in teaching and learning. Their work can and must inform our federal education policies. Based on what we know about improving student achievement, APA has made recommendations to the teacher quality title of HEA to bring psychological research to bear on teacher preparation.

Based on research by APA member Sherry A. Benton, PhD, Newsweek, The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education have reported that, in 2001, 85 percent of college counseling centers reported seeing more students with "severe psychological problems," up from 56 percent reporting that in 1988. APA has recommended HEA provide the necessary support for college counseling centers to meet today's college students' array of needs. Many, for example, need help with how to study, how to live independently and how to cope with serious mental illness.

For APA's membership, HEA reauthorization is an opportunity to shine. We have a chance to make college more accessible, graduate study more affordable, careers in the public interest more pursuable and teaching more grounded in science. HEA is a good law--but one that can be made better if influenced and directed by psychology. For more details on APA's recommendations for HEA, visit the Public Policy Office Web site at To help, e-mail