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Is Bernie Sanders's 'free college' plan really free?

Despite trailing Hillary Clinton by more than 300 pledged delegates, Bernie Sanders is vowing to fight on to the Democratic National Convention. A big part of his support comes from young voters across the country. One reason why: He proposes offering a tuition-free college education to all Americans. 
But how possible is that? We took a look at Sanders’ plan:  
What is Sanders proposing? 
Sanders’ position is based on the College for All Act, a bill he introduced in the Senate last year. Under his estimated $75 billion-per-year plan: 
  • The federal government would provide two-thirds of the funding to cover total tuition revenue for public colleges and universities systems in each state. 
  • Each state would provide the remaining third. 
  • The money must be used “to eliminate tuition and required fees for students” at colleges and universities in the state. 
The states that apply for federal funding would have to meet several requirements. The requirements include maintaining or growing educational spending for each student and mandating schools to lessen their use of adjunct faculty, who are typically paid less than full-time faculty. 
The bill would also reduce interest rates for federal student loans and reform the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application process. The bill is currently sitting in committee
Is it really free?

Not necessarily. Sanders’ plan essentially calls for federal and state governments to share the cost of tuition on behalf of students attending public colleges and universities. But that doesn’t mean states would be lining up to receive the federal government’s money.


Both fiscal and political reasons.

States slashed spending on public higher education in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. According to a report compiled by a group of state officials in charge of higher education, “in 2010, 2011, and 2012, the per-student state and local support were the lowest in the last 25 years. Although 2014 per-student state and local support increased, it still remains significantly lower than pre-recession levels.”

Brian Sigritz, the Director of State Fiscal Studies for the National Association of State Budget Officers, told CNN that budgets are still tight in many states. “There's not a lot of extra money to spend on other programs,” he said.

Meanwhile, more statehouses are governed by Republicans or divided between political parties. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton uses this fact to argue Republican state governors will not buy into Sanders’ plan.

How would Sanders pay for this plan?

Sanders would impose a financial transaction tax. In his Senate bill, he called for taxes of 0.5 percent on stock trades, 0.1 percent on bonds and 0.005 percent on derivatives. Sanders says these fees “could raise hundreds of billions a year” for tuition-free college and other policy ideas, although the debate on whether that’s true rages on.

Does it apply to all colleges and universities?

No. The plan applies only to 4-year public colleges and universities, so it would only cover as many as 68 percent of the nation’s college students. The plan neither applies to tuition at private colleges and universities, nor 2-year schools.

Does it cover room and board?

Sanders’ Senate bill does not mention if room and board are covered as part of tuition-free college. But on his campaign site, Sanders says need-based financial aid from the federal government, state and college can be used to pay for room and board.

How have some other cities, states and countries tried to reduce higher education costs?

Tennessee: Students attending two-year programs and technical schools can apply for the “Tennessee Promise” program, which provides free admission if they’ve exhausted all other funding options like federal and state aid. President Obama touted the program in a visit to Knoxville earlier this year. So far, the retention rate for “Tennessee Promise” students is high

Oregon: The state’s governor signed a bill into law last July that lowers the cost of community college to $50 per term. More than 12,000 soon-to-be high school graduates signed up for the “Oregon Promise” program, which begins this fall.

Detroit: Graduating high school seniors who go to any of the city’s community colleges won’t pay a dime thanks to a new program announced in March.  The program, called the “Detroit Promise Zone,” will make up the difference not covered by grants earned through the student’s FAFSA. In addition, the three-year-old, privately funded Detroit Scholarship program has given 2,000 students a trip to college free of tuition costs.

Germany: The number of U.S. students heading off to school in Germany has swelled to more than 10,000. Why? Germany charges very little for higher education, partly to attract skilled workers. Students studying there usually pay no more than $250 per semester, and that includes text books and the cost of public transportation.

Brazil: The country’s public universities are tuition free and very competitive, according to a report in The Atlantic magazine last year. Because of the increased competition and the country’s lack of good public schools, more students from wealthy families gain admission.

Want to learn more about other tuition-free college programs? NPR recently looked at the correlation between tuition-free college and educational achievement around the world. 



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