Sanders Unveils Tuition-Free College Plan
Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled his higher education plan this week that would make public universities tuition-free by taxing Wall Street, a move that highlights the growing importance of college affordability in the 2016 Democratic primary.
The Vermont independent’s bill, the College for All Act, would allocate $70 billion per year in federal and state assistance that would replace all tuition and fees at public colleges and universities. Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate and longtime proponent of taxing the wealthy, said the yearly cost would be offset through a “very modest” tax on various Wall Street business deals that would raise as much as $300 billion per year.
The proposal would expand federal work-study programs and eliminate the federal government’s profits on student loans, while also lowering interest rates on those loans by almost half. According to Sanders, the plan would offer incentives for colleges and universities nationwide to lower costs in the face of rising tuition rates in recent years.
“If our economy is to be strong, we need the best educated work force in the world,” Sanders said in a statement. “That will not happen if every year hundreds of thousands of young people cannot afford to go to college and if millions more leave school deeply in debt.”
Sanders has repeatedly said he believes America should adopt a system of higher education similar to those in Denmark and Sweden, where colleges and universities are inexpensive and, in many cases, free. In a statement, Sanders called it a “national disgrace” that young Americans are barred from attending college because they can’t afford it.
Under Sanders’ plan, two-thirds of the $70 billion would be covered by the federal government, with state governments picking up the remaining third.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, said the College for All Act is something the American people could get behind, even if Republicans would never support it.
So far, the GOP field of 2016 candidates has been relatively mum on student debt and college affordability.
Likely candidate Jeb Bush has in the past advocated for the expansion of for-profit institutions and has encouraged universities to adopt more online classes to make it more likely that students will not have to rely on loans to get their degrees.
In April, GOP candidate and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul offered a rebuke of President Obama’s community college plan, and instead pushed his own plan to make college tuition tax-deductible.
Sanders' latest move puts the spotlight on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, who has yet to divulge a higher education plan.
As college students are graduating with increasing amounts of debt while tuition rates are rising nationwide, the issue of college affordability is becoming increasingly prominent on the 2016 campaign trail, especially among Democrats, in an attempt to woo young voters.
Clinton’s plan could come soon, as progressives continue to push the former New York senator and likely Democratic nominee to go big. At a Monday campaign event, Clinton said she wants to work toward making college “as debt-free as possible.”
A Clinton campaign aide declined to comment on Sanders’ proposed legislation, adding that she will get into more policy specifics as the campaign ramps up.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has yet to formally enter the presidential race but is expected to do so on May 30, struck a similar populist tone. “Our ultimate goal must be for every student — most especially low-income and middle-class students — to be able to go to college debt-free,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
Earlier this year, President Obama began touting his own college plan, which would make two years of community college free for students with a price tag of $60 billion over 10 years.
The idea was not new to the president, as he sought to embrace efforts already proposed or under way in various states. Initiatives such as Tennessee’s “Promise” Program, which uses money from the state lottery to fund community colleges, are not exclusive to red or blue states, either.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the home states of declared and potential candidates have introduced legislation to create free community college programs. They include conservative states such as Texas and Indiana, and solidly Democratic states, including New York and Maryland. Potential GOP candidates Rick Perry and Mike Pence hail from Texas and Indiana, respectively. Clinton represented New York in the Senate, and O’Malley was the governor of Maryland.