Sanders Keeps Focus on Free College

The Vermont senator’s proposal includes free tuition and fees at public universities for all students with family income up to $125,000 and would cut student loan interest rates in half.

April 4, 2017
 
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks about his latest free-college proposal.

Seeking to offer an alternative vision to that of President Trump and congressional Republicans, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Democratic colleagues on Monday unveiled new legislation Monday to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.

Competing free-college plans offered by Sanders and Hillary Clinton were central to the Democratic presidential primary last year. But with the new bill, as well as Medicare for All legislation, Democrats are looking to keep a focus on the difference between their priorities and those of the new president. Both proposals have no realistic chance of passing soon but could help energize the party's progressive supporters.

The legislation outlined by Sanders Monday, which Democrats are calling College for All, would make public colleges and universities tuition-free to students with family income up to $125,000; make community colleges tuition-free; cut student loan interest rates in half; and triple funding for the Federal Work-Study program.

"Our job is not just to resist all of Trump's dumb proposals," Sanders told a group of vocal supporters at the Dirksen Senate office building. "Our job is to bring forward a progressive agenda."

He was joined at the event, which often took on the feel of a political rally, by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. House sponsors of the legislation -- Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal and Minnesota Representatives Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison -- were also in attendance. California Senator Kamala Harris, whose state has become a hotbed of free-college proposals, has also said she'll support the bill. And the proposal was lauded by members of National Nurses United and the United States Student Association.

Breana Ross, president of the student association, said the cuts to college prep and student aid programs proposed in the White House budget blueprint last month would be extremely detrimental to low-income students and students of color.

"We believe that education is a right and not a commodity," she said.

The legislation represents something of a departure from the free-college proposal Sanders released during his presidential campaign. That version included free college for students regardless of family income. Clinton criticized Sanders's proposal as subsidizing the education of wealthy Americans -- including the children of Donald Trump. She also attacked the plan for relying too much on participation from states -- although her own proposal would have required significant state support. But before receiving his endorsement for president, she offered a compromise plan that moved her own free-college proposal much closer to Sanders's.

The outline of the bill announced Monday hews closely to that final Clinton plan, including the promise that colleges and universities would be tuition-free for students from households earning less than $125,000. Sanders said Monday that would account for 80 percent of U.S. families. Cutting student loan interest rates, meanwhile, has for years been a favored policy of Democrats aiming to address college affordability.

Sanders and the Democrats pitched a major reinvestment in higher education as a matter of national competitiveness.

"Our economy will not survive in the future unless we have the best-educated work force in the world," he said. "Our job, if we are smart, is to do everything possible to make it easier for people to pay for their education -- not harder."

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities said in a statement that state disinvestment in higher education has shifted costs to families and students, who must take out loans to attend even low-cost public colleges.

By calling for a federal-state matching program, Sanders's latest proposal, the statement said, is "one of the most effective mechanisms to incentivize states to partner with the federal government and to make higher education available to all students, regardless of families’ limited financial means."

But some on the left were disappointed by the proposal. The $125,000 cutoff was a compromise in 2016 and a free-college plan shouldn't be means tested, said Melissa Byrne, a free-college organizer who worked for Sanders's presidential campaign and later ran for vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Since Trump's surprise election victory in November, any hope for a free-college package at the federal level appeared dead. But state leaders have continued to offer their own versions of free-college plans. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced in January tuition-free higher education for families in the state earning up to $125,000. Weeks later, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, a fellow Democrat, proposed two tuition-free years at community colleges or public universities in her state. Unlike the Sanders plan, the Rhode Island proposal would give students the choice of two years of free community college or a tuition waiver for their last two years at a four-year institution.

Morley Winograd, president and chief executive officer of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, said he is always glad to see another free-college proposal introduced but said the chances of the bill passing were "slim to none." Instead, it would serve as a statement about the priorities of progressives within the Democratic caucus, he said.

"It's certainly the progressive wing of the Democratic Party -- so Bernie Sanders supporters and people from that movement -- wanting to make sure that that agenda remains alive," he said.

But while support for free college at the federal level is concentrated among progressive Democrats, Winograd said successes expanding free-college programs have often been built with bipartisan support at the state and local level.

"There are as many red states as blue states that have taken steps on free college," he said.

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