Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., proposed legislation that would eliminate all student debt as well as tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, trade schools and apprenticeship programs.
Known as the College for All Act, the bill would be paid for by a tax on Wall Street speculation, according to a press release from Sanders’ office.
“There is a crisis in higher education at a time when a postsecondary degree is more important than ever,” Jayapal said in the press release. “A college degree should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few. … We are committed to restoring freedom to students, workers and families — freedom from the student debt that is holding them back.”
The press release from Sanders’ office states that 45 million Americans have student debt, totaling about $1.6 trillion, which disproportionately affects Black and Latinx Americans. The press release also states, quoting Sanders, that after the 2008 Wall Street bailout, “it is Wall Street’s turn to help the middle class and working class of this country.”
UC Berkeley economics and public policy professor Jesse Rothstein expressed overall support for tuition-free and fee-free public college, although he does not know all the details of this specific legislation.
Rothstein explained in an interview that the true cost of college can be unclear and difficult to navigate. Financial aid is available to many college students, but some students are confused by the price of higher education or do not trust the system, Rothstein said.
“Every effort we’ve made to try to make (the pricing system) clearer hasn’t worked, so we’ve got to be more aggressive,” Rothstein said. “Free is about as clear as you can get, so I think that’s good.”
Campus senior and psychology major Pamee Sapasap reacted positively to the idea of free public college, describing it as “a great mission,” but she wondered how such a proposal could be implemented in an education system as large and complex as that of the United States.
Rothstein said he is not concerned about the argument against this kind of legislation that some of the benefits of tuition-free college would go to higher-income families — he said this lost revenue can be collected through progressive taxes. Rothstein did, however, qualify his support for tuition-free public college by adding that this type of legislation should offer financial aid to low-income students for other kinds of expenses in order to make higher education truly affordable.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but we also need to worry about living expenses that go beyond tuition and fees,” Rothstein said.