Bernie Sanders on Why the Time Is Now to Make College Tuition Free

The debilitating price tag on college, coupled with the fact that 44 million Americans already owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, is why Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the 'College for All' Act earlier this year.

|
Nov 17 2017, 3:24pm

Tracey is a teacher who worked with students with disabilities for 10 years. In a story she shared with the National Education Association about the financial burden of going to college, she compared student loans to a “haunting shadow” that follows people “for the rest of their lives.”

“I managed to complete the first three years of college without any loans,” Tracey wrote. “However, my final year, with my internship that became impossible. I had to give up one of my three jobs and obtain a loan in order to support myself and my two children.” Fourteen years later, she said, her loans have almost doubled because of the accruing interest. “The most difficult part is that the money, while I knew would never be rival to a brain surgeon, has decreased the past five years. While our bills and cost of living has increased, the loan doesn’t go away and the interest accrues.”

The debilitating price tag on college, coupled with the fact that 44 million Americans already owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, is why Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the College for All Act earlier this year.

Tracey’s story highlights just how costly higher education is. In 2016-17, the average in‐state tuition and fees at a four-year public institution was $9,650—an increase of $230 from the previous school year.

The debilitating price tag on college, coupled with the fact that 44 million Americans already owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, is why Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the College for All Act earlier this year. The legislation, if passed, would make tuition free at community colleges and at four-year public institutions for families earning $125,000 or less a year.

“In the richest country in the history of the world,” Sanders wrote recently in an op-ed for VICE Impact, “everyone who has the desire and the ability should be able to get a college education regardless of their background and ability to pay.”

The bill, currently co-sponsored by seven Democrats, is fairly comprehensive. In addition to doing away with tuition and fees for the vast majority of students, the legislation also cuts loan interest rates in half and allows former students to refinance their loans at the rate available to new borrowers.

These student loan reforms are “pretty spectacular,” Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal policy at American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told VICE Impact. “People think free tuition means free college—well, it doesn’t because college fundamentally limits your ability to reasonably participate in the labor market. You can’t really work if you’re a full-time student; you can work part time but beyond a certain limit, about 20 hours a week, that begins to bite into your education. People do have living expenses— books, transportation, room and board, those kinds of things—and free college doesn’t do anything for that. It just means they won’t charge you tuition. So there will still be a need for financial aid, and the way many people access financial aid may well be through borrowing.”

The bill would also create grant programs that would offer direct assistance to tribal colleges and minority-serving institutions, such as private historically black colleges and universities; expand who can participate in the Federal Work-Study Program; and simplify the process for students to apply for financial assistance.

The reason why college costs so much is that states have fundamentally disinvested from their public higher education system.

Sanders, according to a summary of the bill, estimates the total cost of tuition at public institutions to be about $70 billion a year. He proposes making Wall Street foot the bill by imposing a “speculation tax” on stock trades, bonds and derivatives, which would allow the federal government to cover 67 percent of the cost of the program. Sanders wants states to step up for the remaining 33 percent.

The reason why college costs so much, Nassirian explained, is that “states have fundamentally disinvested from their public higher education system. When you go to a public institution, and you receive in-state tuition, that in-state tuition is below what it costs the institution to educate you, and institutions don’t print money in the basement. The reason they can offer that cut-rate tuition is because the state is chipping in on your behalf. What is happening is the states have increasingly withdrawn that support, which means that the burden is shifting from the states to the students.”

Forty years ago, he pointed out, the vast majority of public colleges and universities were within reach financially for most people (barring issues of segregation and discrimination). “College was so affordable: A few hundred dollars was your typical flagship public institution’s tuition back then.”

"I’ll put $40 billion plus on the table if you come up with the rest."

“The genius of [Sanders’] plan,” Nassirian continued, “is that it’s not just the federal government putting money on the table to pay for these expenses. The federal government creates an incentive for the states to fund their public institutions. He basically makes an offer to the states that says, ‘I’ll put $40 billion plus on the table if you come up with the rest,’ and it’s a two to one match. For every dollar of state spending, he puts two dollars of federal funding into the pot.”

Nassirian added that the general direction of Sanders’ bill is promising, and comes at an important time. “Unless something radical happens,” he said, “we are going to have nothing but private institutions. The fact is, publics are going to disappear unless we change course—the course we’re on is extremely alarming because we are rapidly approaching the point at which publics don’t receive any funding from the states.”

The College For All Act of 2017, or Senate Bill 806 , currently sits in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Contact your lawmakers about this piece of legislation if you believe higher education needs to be more accessible and affordable for more Americans. And check out groups like the United States Student Association which is organizing for more equitable education policy.