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College at no cost? Here’s who could get tuition-free education under proposed bill

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal unveiled the legislation Wednesday as President Biden weighs canceling some student loan debt.
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In this May 17, 2018, file photo, new graduates line up before the start of the Bergen Community College commencement at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (Seth Wenig | AP Photo, File)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, on Wednesday unveiled legislation that, if passed, would make college tuition-free for many families.

The proposed bill comes amid a larger debate about student loan debt relief.

Here’s what to know.

What would the bill do?

The bill, called the College for All Act, would make community colleges tuition-free for everyone and public colleges and universities tuition- and debt-free for families making less than $125,000 a year.

“It would also guarantee students from families earning under $125,000 a year can attend tuition-free and debt-free public and private, non-profit Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions, and other Minority-Serving Institutions,” Sanders and Jayapal said in a statement.

The College for All Act would double the maximum Pell Grant from $6,495 to $12,990 and allow students to use the grants to pay for living and non-tuition expenses, including books and housing. People who were brought to the United States as children and are undocumented, often referred to as “Dreamers,” would also be eligible for the grants under the legislation.

It would also triple federal TRIO funding and double GEAR UP funding to “serve millions of additional low-income students, students with disabilities, and first-generation college students.”

TRIO programs “provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds” and GEAR UP, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, are designed to “increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.”

Who would be affected?

The $125,000 income threshold for tuition-free college would apply to many families.

In 2019, roughly 66 percent of households made less than $100,000 a year, and 15.5 percent made between $100,000 and $149,999 a year, according to a 2021 report from Statista analyzing U.S. Census Bureau data. The median household income was $68,703.

Additionally, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates about 4.9 million students were enrolled in community colleges — which would be free for everyone under the bill — in spring 2020.

During the 2018-2019 school year, about 34 percent of undergraduate students received a Pell grant, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

TRIO programs serve more than 800,000 students, according to the Council for Opportunity in Education, and GEAR UP serves about 523,000 students, the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships says.

Why it matters

Roughly 44.7 million borrowers owe more than $1.71 trillion in student loan debt, LendingTree estimates.

More than half, 56 percent, of people who graduated from public and non-profit colleges in 2019 had student loan debt, and the average debt owed was $28,800, according to LendingTree.

“While the Biden Administration reviews how much student debt the president can cancel without Congress, the College for All Act will end the debt spiral in which too many working families find themselves,” the statement about the bill said.

How would the proposal be paid for?

The bill would be paid for by the Tax on Wall Street Speculation Act, which Sanders reintroduced Wednesday. The act would put a tax of 0.5 percent on stock trades, a 0.1 percent fee on bonds and 0.005 percent fee on derivatives.

“The tax would raise up to $2.4 trillion over the next decade,” the statement says.

The federal government would pay for 75 percent of the cost of eliminating tuition at public institutions, the statement says.

States would pay for the remaining costs, the statement says, “but the legislation also includes an automatic stabilizer to increase that share to 90 percent in the case of an economic downturn.”

What’s being said about free college?

Sanders said in the statement that higher education should be a “right for all.”

“If we are going to have the kind of standard of living that the American people deserve, we need to have the best educated workforce in the world,” he said. “It is absolutely unacceptable that hundreds of thousands of bright young Americans do not get a higher education each year, not because they are unqualified, but because their family does not have enough money.”

Jayapal said families shouldn’t have to take out “crushing loans” to receive a higher education.

“The College for All Act will free students from a lifetime of debt, invest in working people, and transform higher education across America,” she said.

But other lawmakers, including many Democrats, have said free college for most would be too costly, NPR reports.

Republicans have in the past shown resistance to the idea of free college and student debt relief.

“Free college may sound nice, but the outcomes would be anything but nice,” Besty DeVos, former U.S. Education Secretary under former President Donald Trump, said during a campaign appearance in 2020, according to Inside Higher Ed. “Think about it. Only a third of Americans pursue four-year college degrees. Why should two-thirds pay for the other one-third?”

During a Senate Banking Committee hearing this month, Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, questioned why the government would cancel student loan debt but not other debts, such as mortgages or credit card debt, CBS News reports.

And Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican, called the idea a ploy to keep Democrats in power by “hoodwinking the American people into thinking their debt won’t impose a cost on society,” according to CBS.

A Pew Research poll conducted in early 2020 found 63 percent of American adults support making tuition free at public colleges and universities while 36 percent oppose it.

What else to know

The bill comes as some Democratic lawmakers have pushed for broader student loan debt forgiveness.

Some have pushed President Joe Biden to cancel a portion of student debt without Congress through the Higher Education Act of 1965, which some argue allows the president to broadly discharge debts.

Biden has previously said he supports canceling $10,000 in student debt per borrower, but some Democratic lawmakers have urged him to cancel up to $50,000.

“This is also a civil rights issue. A disproportionate burden of student debt falls on people of color often times because they were taken advantage of by a lot of these awful, despicable disgusting ... for-profit colleges,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has previously said.

Biden has also asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to prepare a report on the legality of canceling up to $50,000, CNBC reports.