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Democrats unveil plan for tuition-free college amid student debt crisis

As President Biden weighs executive action to cancel as much as $50,000 in student loans for each borrower, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington are introducing new legislation Wednesday they say would help address the soaring cost of higher education.

If passed, the College for All Act would make community colleges and trade schools tuition-free for all students. It would also make public four-year colleges and universities as well as public nonprofit minority-serving institutions — such as historically Black colleges and universities — tuition-free for all students from families earning less than $125,000 a year.

"If we are going to have the kind of standard of living that the American people deserve, we need to have the best educated workforce in the world," said Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, in a statement. "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."

The proposal comes as some Democratic lawmakers have urged the president, who had initially supported $10,000 in student loan relief, to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt. More than 44 million Americans are burdened by student loan debt and the total debt surpassed $1.7 trillion last year. Supporters argue the move would provide relief for millions of Americans saddled with debt and spur economic growth. Critics question the fairness of the move and claim it does not address the underlying high costs of college. 

The new proposal would double the maximum federal Pell grant to $12,990, up from the current $6,495, and allow students to use the money to cover other college-related costs like housing and books. The grant amount would also be tied to inflation and expanded to eligible Dreamers, people who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children. 

Their proposal also would triple federal funding for programs that help identify and provide services for students from disadvantaged backgrounds — low income, first-generation college students or are individuals with disabilities. It would double money for Gear UP, the grant program that helps prepare low-income students for college.

To make such college tuition-free, the federal government would cover 75% of the costs for tuition and fees while states would pay the remaining 25%. The plan would also bump the federal government's share to 90% in the case of an economic downturn. 

In an effort to pay for the proposal, Sanders will also reintroduce legislation Wednesday that puts a tax on trades with stocks at .5%, bonds at .1% and derivatives at .005%. According to the senator, the plan would raise up to $2.4 trillion over 10 years. Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California is set to reintroduce the tax legislation in the House.

The College for All Act has been endorsed by at least eight unions and more than two dozen national organizations including progressive organizations such as Justice Democrats and MoveOn. 

"Successful transition into adulthood is an essential measure of well-being for children and youth," said Children's Defense Fund President and CEO the Reverend Starsky Wilson, in a statement supporting the initiative. "With 6 in 10 American jobs requiring some education beyond high school, our children will not thrive without these doors being open wide."

The legislation reflects some of Mr. Biden's education platform on the campaign trail. During the election, he called for two years of community college and other trade schools to be tuition-free as well as making public colleges and universities tuition-free for families making less than $125,000. His platform also included doubling Pell grants. But the plan still faces an uphill climb in Congress, including how it will be paid for as Democrats hold a slim majority in the House and the Senate is split 50-50. 

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Senators Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and the Reverend Raphael Warnock, of Georgia, sent a letter to Secretary Miguel Cardona urging the Education Department to remove federal student loan borrowers from default after COVID relief measures halted payments and interest amid the pandemic.

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