Bernie Sanders’ Ambitious Plan To Eliminate College Tuition

New York nurse Stephen Ogala holds a sign showing how much student debt he graduated with in 2008. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
New York nurse Stephen Ogala holds a sign showing how much student debt he graduated with in 2008. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wants to see a “revolution” in higher education funding.

The longtime Senator and newly minted presidential candidate unveiled a bill Tuesday that would completely eliminate undergraduate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. The bill would also expand work-study programs and allow graduates who collectively hold more than a trillion dollars in student debt to refinance at a lower interest rate. At a press conference outside the US Capitol, Sanders called the current burdens on students and graduates a “national disgrace.”

“We have to make sure that every qualified American in this country who has the ability and desire to go to college is able to go to college, regardless of the income of his or her family,” he said. “It is totally unacceptable that Americans are drowning in $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. It is unacceptable that millions of college graduates cannot afford to buy their first home or their first car because of the outrageously high interest rates they are paying on student debt.”

One of those students is Octavia Savage, who just graduated Bloomfield College in New Jersey with a degree in accounting and $26,000 in debt.


“I am considered lucky, because the average student leaves with even more debt,” she told ThinkProgress. “But I’m worried about six months from now when I’m going to have to start paying it back. How am I going to do that? And if I can’t, it’ll start to affect my credit score, and in the future I won’t be able to purchase what I want even if I have a good job because my score will look like I’m not responsible. “

During college, Savage worked at UPS, Walmart, the college library and Sprint — including overnight shifts — to be able to afford tuition and books. Now, she lives with her dad in Newark and feels unable to move forward with her life because of her debt burden.

“I’m ready to move out. I’m 21 years old! I should be moving out but unfortunately I can’t afford to live on my own,” she said. “I also see my younger siblings and my community wishing to go to school but not able to get the loans and grants they need.”

The “College for All Act” introduced this week would have the federal government pay for two-thirds of the cost of public college tuition, and ask states to pick up the tab for the remaining third. The schools would be barred from using federal money to increase administrator salaries or build non-academic buildings like sports stadiums. Student loan interest rates for undergraduates would be cut to just over 2 percent, and would be tied to inflation but capped at 8.25 percent. The bill would also expand federal work-study programs and make them available to more students at more schools.

If signed into law, Sanders’ proposal would bring the US in line with Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden and other countries that already provide tuition-free higher education — though students in some of those countries have had to take to the streets to defend that tradition. Not only do these countries provide a free education for their citizens, some extend the benefits to foreign students while others actually pay their students to study.


Even in the US, having public colleges and universities charge tens of thousands of dollars in tuition every year is a relatively new phenomenon, as is the assumption that most students need to go deeply into debt to finance their education.

A new report from the economic think tank Demos shows these “new normals” don’t affect everyone equally. More than 80 percent of black graduates from public colleges graduate with debt, compared to just over 60 percent of white students. Black and Latino students are also dropping out with debt at higher rates than white students. These disparities impact the lives of graduates for decades to come, dictating what jobs they can work, and their ability to buy a home or start a family.

Stephen Ogala, who came to DC from Pomona, New York where he works as a nurse at a VA hospital, told ThinkProgress the US has the means to do better.

“We are the richest country in the world, but we have students not able to go to college because of tuition. We have students in debt after college. They shouldn’t have to go through all that just to get an education.”

Oglala graduated from a private nursing school in 2008 with $19,000 in debt and a 12 percent interest rate. To avoid being trapped by that high rate, he took a loan from his federal 401k account to be able to pay off his debt with lower interest. He says he is advocating for Sanders’ bill because he doesn’t want his two sons, who are now 11 and 12 years old, to go through similar hardships to get a college degree.

“I don’t have enough money to pay my mortgage, to pay my utilities, to provide for my children,” he told ThinkProgress. “It’s affecting me in every way, shape and form.”


To pay for his proposal, which Sanders’ office estimates will cost $750 billion over a decade, the Senator is calling for a so-called “Robin Hood” or financial transactions tax on some forms of Wall Street trading. The measure would impose a 0.5 percent tax on stock trades — or 50 cents for every $100 worth of stocks — a 0.1% fee on bonds, and a 0.005% fee on derivatives trading. Sanders has introduced the “Robin Hood tax” as a separate bill, though neither are unlikely to even get a vote in the current Republican-controlled Congress.

Some studies show, however, that the cost of a making public college tuition free could be zero.

The government already spends nearly 70 billion a year for all the Pell Grant and other grants, the tax breaks, and the work-study funds that help students afford college today. As tuition increases, as it has dramatically over the last five years, these costs will also increase. A shift to free public education could not only save taxpayers money, it could push private colleges to lower their tuition in order to compete.

As he revs up his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the White House, Sanders’ progressive policy proposals are resonating with those hit hardest by the recent recession and could push front-runner Hillary Clinton further to the left on a number of key issues including student debt. In fact, Clinton staffers have hinted that she is considering a plan that would help students graduate debt-free.

Yet the GOP seems to be moving in the opposite direction. House Republicans passed a budget in early May that would roll back or eliminate current financial aid programs for low-income students. Republican governors, meanwhile, including those running for President, are gutting their higher education budgets, which is leading to tuition hikes for some students. Other 2016 hopefuls, including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, have defended the controversial for-profit college industry that has recently been found to be illegally defrauding its students and is also a major contributor to the student debt crisis.