October 27, 2017
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Sanders: To Lift 'Outrageous' Burden of Student Debt, Time for Tuition-Free College for All

"Each and every American must be able to get the education they need to match their skills and fulfill their dreams."

by Jon Queally

In order to lift the burden of debt on millions of students and unleash the potential of current and futute generations, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declared on Tuesday night that the time is now "to make public colleges and universities tuition free" in the United States.

In the speech, delivered at Castleton University in his home state of Vermont, Sanders called for all U.S. students, regardless of background or ambitions, to have access to higher education that would not saddle them with loans.

"It's time to reduce the outrageously heavy burden of student debt that is weighing down the lives of millions of college graduates," Sanders said.

"And let me be very clear," he added. "I am not just talking about 4-year universities and colleges.  I am talking about community colleges.  I am talking about vocational schools.  I am talking about apprenticeships.  We desperately need highly trained and highly skilled electricians, welders, plumbers, mechanics, pipefitters and health care workers of every kind. Each and every American must be able to get the education they need to match their skills and fulfill their dreams."

Watch (Sanders' speech start at approx. 36:40):

A core plank in his 2016 presidential run and an issue the senator says he intends to keep pushing in the Senate, the idea of reducing the costs and associated debt of higher education has widespread appeal. A poll last year—backed by similar findings both before and after—showed that more than 60 percent of Americans support the idea of tuition-free college. More Republicans, according to a poll last month, now support than oppose such a program.

Read Sanders' full prepared remarks below:

I want to thank Castleton University for hosting this event, all of you who are here tonightand the many thousands of people on college campuses and at homes all across the country who are watching this via live stream.

I don’t have to tell anyone that this country faces enormous problems - economically, politically, environmentally and socially.

Economically, over the last 40 years the middle-class of this country has been shrinking and we now have some 40 million people living in poverty. All across America we have people working two or three jobs just to put food on the table and pay the bills. Meanwhile, the gap between the very rich and everybody else is growing wider, and we have more income and wealth inequality than almost any other major country on earth.

Politically, we have a corrupt political system which, as a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, allows billionaires to spend hundreds of millions each year to buy elections for candidates who represent the rich and the powerful. We also have President Trump and Republican Governors working overtime to suppress the vote, to make it harder for people of color, poor people and young people to vote.

Environmentally, we face the global crisis of climate change. The planet is getting warmer and in the United States and all over theworld we face the threat of more drought, more floods, more acidification of the oceans, more rising sea levels and more extreme weather disturbances like what we have recently seen in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere. This is a monumental crisis.

Socially, as a result of President Trump’s efforts to divide us up, we are seeing more overt displays of racism and anti-Semitism. We are seeing a rise in right-wing extremism, more religious bigotry against Muslims and other religious minorities and a very intentional effort to arouse hatred against undocumented immigrants - Latinos and others.  We are also seeing the President try to turn back the clock on women’s rights and the needs of the LGBT community. 

I raise these issues because I don’t believe we are going to solve any of these problems, and a lot more that I didn’t discuss, unless we address the topic I want to speak to you about tonight: the need for the United States to have the best educated population in the world, the need to make public colleges and universities tuition free and the need to significantly lower the outrageous level of student debt that currently exists.

Today, as a result of rapidly rising college costs, stagnant or declining income for the middle class and major cutbacks in state and federal aid for higher education, hundreds of thousands of bright young Americans are unable to afford to go to college. These young people have the ability, they have the desire, but their families lack the money for a higher education. How tragic is that? Not only will these young people not be able to fulfill their personal dreams, but the overall economy suffers as well. How many great scientists, doctors, educators, businesspeople are not being created because these young people do not receive the education they want and need?

But this crisis impacts not only those people who are unable to afford to go to college, it impacts millions of Americans who have attended college and graduate school - and who leave school with outrageous levels of student debt, debt that they sometimes spend a lifetime paying off. Unbelievably, in America today there are 44 million Americans who owe more than $1.3 trillion in debt. This $1.3 trillion in student debt is now higher than either credit card debt or auto loan debt.

Now what does that debt mean to the individual - especially those people who are working at jobs that do not pay them decent wages? It means that after you pay off your student debt every month you might not be able to afford a car, or buy a house or have kids.

But here’s what it also means that might be even more important. It means that millions of Americans may not be doing the jobs that they want to do, the jobs that they dreamed about doing, because of the burden of this student debt.

We have a major crisis in this country in terms of early childhood education. We desperately need excellent childcare workers to provide the emotional and intellectual sustenance that our young children need and to make sure they are prepared for school. But who can make childcare into a career, earning $14 an hour or less, and pay off a large student debt? It can’t be done without great sacrifice.

What about someone graduating law school and wanting to go into public law - perhaps as a public defender, a legal aid lawyer, an immigration lawyer or an environmental lawyer? How do you do that on a salary of $40,000 a year?

We are in desperate need of primary care physicians in medically underserved areas throughout rural America and in our inner cities. How can you become a primary care doctor with a student debt of $300,000? It’s possible, but it’s not easy.

In other words, the devastating burden of high student debt not only causes enormous financial problems for individuals and families, it also destroys dreams.  It often drives people into jobs they would prefer not to be doing - but that they are forced to do in order to earn the higher salaries they need to pay off their debts.  

The current situation regarding the financing of higher education is not only unfair to the working families of our country, but is incredibly stupid when we look at the long-term needs of the American economy. Everyone knows that in a highly competitive global economy, our middle class and our nation will not succeed unless we have the best-educated workforce in the world. Our economy will not grow and prosper unless we have the workforce to perform the jobs of the future.

Fifty years ago, if you had a high school degree, odds were that you could get a decent-job and make it into the middle class.  The education and job skills you had allowed you to get some of the best jobs available. But an exploding technology has changed that world. While not all middle-class jobs in today's economy require post-secondary education, an increasing number do.  By 2020, it is estimated that two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require some education beyond high school. 

And these jobs, of course, tend to pay better. Nationally, a worker with an associate’s degree will earn about $360,000 more over their career than a worker with a high school diploma.  And a worker with a bachelor’s degree will earn almost $1 million more.  Bottom line: it is increasingly difficult to make it into the middle class without some higher education, because that’s where the good paying jobs are.

Now, let me give you some news that’s really scary, and does not bode well for the future. Not so many years ago we led the world in college graduation rates. We had a higher percentage of college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 than any other country. We were the best-educated nation on earth and not surprisingly, we had the strongest economy. Today, in terms of the percentage of our young people graduating college, we have fallen to 11th place, behind such countries as Japan, South Korea, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Switzerland. 

Eleventh place is not the place for a great nation like the United States. Eleventh place is not the place to be if we want to be a prosperous nation.

In my view, the time is long overdue to change that dynamic. It’s time to make public colleges and universities tuition free for the working families of our country. It is time for every school child in the country to understand that if they study hard and take their schoolwork seriously they will be able to get a higher education regardless of the income of their family. 

It’s time to reduce the outrageously heavy burden of student debt that is weighing down the lives of millions of college graduates.

And let me be very clear.  I am not just talking about 4-year universities and colleges.  I am talking about community colleges.  I am talking about vocational schools.  I am talking about apprenticeships.  We desperately need highly trained and highly skilled electricians, welders, plumbers, mechanics, pipefitters and health care workers of every kind.

Each and every American must be able to get the education they need to match their skills and fulfill their dreams.   

In the richest country in the history of the world, everyone who has the desire and the ability should be able to get a college education regardless of their background and ability to pay. That’s why I introduced the College for All Act that would make public colleges and universities in America tuition free for families earning $125,000 per year or less—86 percent of our population.

This is not a radical idea. A number of nations around the world are doing just that, investing in their young people so that they will have an educated workforce that isn’t burdened with enormous student debt. In Germany, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden public colleges and universities are tuition free.  In Germany, public colleges are free not only for Germans, but also for international students, including some 11,000 from the United States of America.

And let us also understand that it wasn’t that long ago that our own government understood the value of investing heavily in higher education, and treating it as a public good. In 1944, just before the end of World War II, Congress passed the GI Bill providing a free college education to millions of World War II veterans. It has been widely acknowledged that this was one of the most successful pieces of legislation in modern history, laying the groundwork for the extraordinary post-war economic boom, and paying for itself many times over.

But it was not just the federal government that acted in the past. In 1965, average tuition at a four-year state public university was just $256, and many of the best colleges – such as the City University of New York – did not charge any tuition. The University of California system, considered by many to be the crown jewel of public higher education in this country, did not charge tuition until the 1980s. In other words, making public colleges and universities tuition free is not a new idea. We’ve been there and done that. And it’s a policy that works.

The good news is that in the last couple of years governors, state legislators and local officials around the country now understand the current crisis and are doing the right thing by moving forward to make public colleges and universities tuition free. This year, the City College of San Francisco began offering tuition-free college, and their enrollments for residents of that city are up by 51 percent compared to the prior year. In New York State this year, tens of thousands will go to the city’s public colleges and universities without paying tuition. Similar programs have popped up in Tennessee, in Oregon, Detroit and Chicago.

Now some people will say, “Well, you know, it’s a good idea making public colleges and universities tuition-free, but it’s expensive, it costs a lot of money.  How are you going to pay for it?”

And, here’s the answer.  At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, at a time when trillions of dollars in wealth have left the pockets of the middle class and have gone to the top one-tenth of one percent, at a time when the wealthiest people in this country have made huge amounts of money from risky derivative transactions and the soaring value of the stock market, we will pay for this legislation by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculation. 

Again, this is not a radical idea.  More than 1,000 economists have endorsed a tax on Wall Street speculation and today some 40 countries throughout the world have imposed a similar tax including Britain, Germany and France.

In 2008, the taxpayers of America bailed out Wall Street.  Now, it’s Wall Street’s turn to rebuild the middle class by making sure that everyone can get a decent education. 

And if my conservative colleagues tell you that the cost of making public colleges and universities tuition free and cutting student debt in half at a federal cost of $569 billion over ten years is too expensive, ask them why they support President Trump’s budget which would provide $1.9 trillion in tax breaks to the top 1 percent.  Those are the national priorities we are now dealing with.  We can spend $569 billion over ten years to make sure that every middle-class family in this country can provide a higher education for their kids, or we can give three times that amount in tax breaks to the top one percent.  I know what side I am on.

Let me be very clear.  We can win this fight. Public sentiment is on our side. The American people understand the need for this legislation.  But we will not win unless millions of Americans, especially young people, stand up, fight back and demand that this legislation be passed.  That means you.  

As a United States senator I can tell you that real change never takes place unless it comes from the grassroots, from the bottom on up. Left alone, Congress and the White House will listen to their billionaire friends on Wall Street and in corporate America, to the lobbyists and the big campaign contributors.

If we’re going to win this fight your voices are needed, not only on the more than 500 campuses watching this event tonight, but from every university, college, junior college and apprenticeship program in America.

Tonight, I am asking you to act. The College for All Act I introduced with seven of my colleagues in the Senate and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal introduced in the House of Representatives with 35 cosponsors, needs more support. This bill would make public colleges and universities tuition free for most students and cut interest rates on student debt in half.

Tonight, I am asking you to please call your member of the Senate. Ask if they are a cosponsor of S. 806. Also call your member of the House of Representatives and ask if they are a cosponsor of HR 1880. If not, ask them to sign onto the bill. Tell them your story, what this bill would mean to you and why they must support it. 

You can invite your U.S. senators or members of Congress to your campus to talk about the high cost of higher education and what student debt means to you.  On Election Day they want your vote. Now, tell them what you need, in person. That’s called democracy.  

But there is more to do than simply advocating for the College for All Act. We have got to work together to build a movement. And that can start on your campus through your action.

You can:

Start a conversation with your friends about the cost of college and the need to make public colleges and universities tuition free. Engage with local high school students and parents on this issue.

Ask your student government to pass a resolution in support of tuition free public college and urge the administration and board of trustees of your school to do the same.   

Ask your governor and state legislature to get moving on this issue.  A number of states are already doing that. Is yours? Is it more important to give tax breaks to the rich, or build more jails, or should we be making public colleges and universities tuition free? 

There are many ways you can get involved and participate in this movement. And it’s up to you to decide what actions will be most effective on your campus and in your community.

But the truth is, like every other great struggle in American history - workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental protection- we will only make gains if we are prepared to fight for them.  

Working together, we can make public colleges and universities tuition free, and lower the oppressive burden of debt that afflicts far too many young people.

Thank you very much.

This article, originally appeared on Commondreams.org, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Photo: Nick Solari/flickr/cc

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