NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who has for decades been a prominent figure in federal higher education policy, said Monday that he would not seek reelection to Congress this year.

Miller's retirement probably won't create an opening for the Republicans in the 2014 off-year election since his Contra Costa-East Bay seat is solidly Democratic. But it will be a blow to the nation's students, coming on the heels of the announcement that Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) won't seek a sixth term in November.

"No one would confuse me and George Miller for ideological soul mates," said House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a statement on Monday. "But during our years serving together on the Education and the Workforce Committee, we got things done on behalf of the American people thanks in no small part to his dedication and willingness to work for the greater good."

Miller was the ranking member of the education committee when Boehner was the Republican chair, before the Democrats took control of the House in 2006. The GOP regained control in 2010.

Although the Contra Costa Times labeled his resignation a surprise, he was near the end of his fourth decade on the House education committee. He played a key role in the passage of the 2010 Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act that ended federal subsidies for student loans made by banks and other private lenders.

Often dubbed one of the "Watergate Babies" since he took office in 1974 following Richard Nixon's trip into exile, he said in a statement that he "looks forward to one last year in Congress fighting the good fight," before moving on to other unspecified projects.

"For probably two decades now, George Miller has been the go-to person on education issues for Democrats," said Victor Klatt, principal of the D.C.-based lobbying group Penn Hill and a former Republican staff director on the House education committee. "He knows how to get things done and has connections that are unmatched on the Democratic side."

Miller has championed increases in Pell Grant funding and also pushed for tighter regulations on the financial products that students encounter on campus, such as checking accounts and debit cards. He has also become an advocate of improved working conditions for adjunct faculty, whose presence has grown in universities across the country.

Some of his progressive colleagues have criticized him for not doing enough to rein in for-profit colleges. Miller did, however, sponsor legislation to limit the amount of federal money that for-profit colleges could use for marketing campaigns.

A legislative focus, Miller said, will be to "make college more affordable through the Higher Education Act," a 1960s Great Society law that expires at the end of this year. Some legislators have doubts that a new version of the law will pass this year.