Independent Take on Free

Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, enters Democratic presidential race with a pitch for his free tuition plan, possibly putting some pressure on Hillary Clinton's left flank.

May 1, 2015

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders made it official on Thursday by announcing his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Vermont Independent, who is 73, used part of his informal, 10-minute news conference on Capitol Hill to pitch a previously announced proposal for two free years of public college.

What did he say?

“In my state of Vermont and throughout this country, young people -- bright, young, able kids -- cannot afford to go to college. And others are leaving school deeply in debt,” he said during the news conference. “In Germany and countries around the world, they understand that you tap the intellectual capabilities of young people. You make college tuition in public universities and public colleges free. That's my view as well.”

The proposal

Sanders in February called for a “revolution” in how higher education is funded. His plan is for the federal government to award $18 billion per year in matching grants to states over and above existing federal aid. This would allow public colleges to cut tuition rates by 55 percent, he said. As a result, Sanders wants to offer two free years of college to students at all public institutions, rather than just at community colleges, as President Obama has proposed

Tough love for the academy

State disinvestment in public higher education has helped drive up tuition prices, Sanders said in an interview last month with HuffPost Live. But that's not the whole story, he said.

“The universities and colleges themselves deserve a good part of the blame,” said Sanders, who called for college leaders to use technology to help drive down costs, among other solutions.

Not just Germany

In that same interview, Sanders singled out Denmark for praise, noting that tuition for both undergraduates and graduate students is free in that country.

Family ties

Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont's largest city, in the 1980s. After that stint the senator, who holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Chicago, briefly taught political science at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and at Hamilton College.

His wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, has deeper higher education bona fides. She served as president of Burlington College from 2004 to 2011. However, her departure was abrupt. And critics have said that Jane Sanders's 2010 purchase of a $10 million property contributed to the tiny college's financial woes. Burlington enrolled fewer than 200 students last year. The college also faces a serious accreditation crisis.

Is he serious?

The Independent senator and self-described socialist is a long shot. He himself mused Thursday “whether it is possible for any candidate who is not a billionaire or who is not beholden to the billionaire class to be able to run a successful campaign,” the National Journal reported. Yet Sanders's message on income inequality resonates with some liberals. And some hope his entry into the race will push the early Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, to the left.

For his part, Sanders said his campaign is for real. “We're in this race to win,” he said Thursday.


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