House and Senate Democrats — including a group of 2020 candidates for president — jointly introduced legislation Wednesday that aims to offer “debt-free” public college in five years by using federal money to encourage states to invest in higher education.
The bill would create a voluntary state-federal partnership that gives states a one-to-one award for whatever money they appropriate to higher-education spending. In other words, if a state appropriates $1 billion to higher education, the federal government would give them an additional $1 billion. The bill would mandate that the federal government set aside $84.1 billion for the first year of the partnership. The bills’ sponsors say that even if states didn’t increase their current public education appropriations, the federal match would make debt-free college an immediately reality in 10 states.
The idea is that the bill would cover not just tuition but the total cost of attending a public higher-education institution, including textbooks and room and board. State funding of public education has been in decline for three decades, while student debt and college tuition prices are reaching all-time highs.
“The full cost of college – including books, room and board, and supplies — is more than twice as much as tuition,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat who’s sponsoring the bill, in a tweet announcement. “If we are going to be serious about solving the student-loan debt crisis, we need to focus on the real cost to students and their families.”
Schatz is joined by a host of 2020 hopefuls in sponsoring the bill. Sens. Sherrod Brown, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren have all signed on. Notably absent from the bill: Sens. Amy Klobuchar, who is among the most centrist of 2020 candidates, and Bernie Sanders, who is the most progressive. Schatz previously introduced the bill in 2018, when all of Congress was controlled by Republicans, so it had no chance of reaching a vote.
In terms of ambition, the debt-free college act falls somewhere in the middle of left-wing legislation being pushed by Democrats ahead of the 2020 election. Warren and Sanders, for example, have previously called for not just free tuition but student debt relief for people burdened by loans.
In the House, the bill is sponsored by Reps. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and has a slew of co-sponsors, including up-and-comers Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
Cover: In this Oct. 23, 2018, file photo, students walk on the campus of Miami Dade College, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)