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Progressive lawmakers push for free college for most families

The Sanders-Jayapal bill would make tuition-free college a reality for many — and make Wall Street pay for it

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced similar tuition-free legislation in the past, but this is the first time with the Senate in Democratic control.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced similar tuition-free legislation in the past, but this is the first time with the Senate in Democratic control. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Progressive lawmakers on Wednesday introduced the latest version of legislation to make four years of college or university free for most families in the country, paid for by new taxes on stock and bond transactions.

The legislation, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., would also double the maximum Pell Grant award to nearly $13,000 and spend billions more on historically Black colleges and universities and programs for disadvantaged students. 

“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,” Sanders said in an announcement.

The bill would guarantee tuition-free community college for all students and allow students from families earning less than $125,000 to attend a public college or university for free. Sponsors said leveraging speculation on Wall Street would fund the education plan. A separate bill unveiled  Wednesday would place a 0.5 percent tax on stock transactions, a 0.1 tax on bond transactions and a 0.005 percent tax on derivatives.

“While President Biden can and should immediately cancel student debt for millions of borrowers, Congress must ensure that working families never have to take out these crushing loans to receive a higher education in the first place,” Jayapal said in the announcement.

Sanders and Jayapal have introduced similar legislation before, including last Congress, but it’s the first time they have introduced the measure with Democratic control of the Senate. President Joe Biden endorsed part of the 2017 version of the bill during his presidential campaign, but the legislation unveiled Wednesday goes further than that. 

The Biden campaign promised to make two years of community college tuition free and provide tuition- free four-year college. The campaign did not mention expanding some programs, such as federal TRIO Programs for disadvantaged students, that target low-income or first-generation college students. It also didn’t include the funding mechanism that would tax stock and bond transactions.

Sanders, Jayapal and other progressives also have pushed the Biden administration to forgive up to $50,000 in student loan debt without the need for legislation.

Biden’s first budget proposal, released earlier this month, proposed a much smaller increase in Pell Grant awards, up to $6,895, as part of a record proposed increase in Department of Education funding. The current maximum for the 2021-22 school year is $6,495.

Expanding federal support for college education has bubbled up in Democratic politics for years — President Barack Obama spotlighted it in his 2015 State of the Union address — but it has not taken off.

The tuition-free college push from progressives may factor into any further talks over a broader bill on higher education. Talks have been on the back burner since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In 2019, the House Education and Labor Committee took up a Higher Education Act reauthorization, but it did not pass the chamber. Former Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee led the Republican side on efforts to renew the bill before his retirement at the end of last Congress. 

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