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Making Free College Tuition a Real Thing


One thing about the left is that there’s often a tendency to replace policy with slogan. This is OK; it’s not really up to people making demands to work out all the details before they make them. That’s part of protest politics and it needs to remain part of protest politics. But….in order to see these demands through, they do have to engage with the real-life world, both in order to create something realistic but also to push back on the ability of centrists from co-opting their slogan and ruining it. A prime example of this is on the free college issue. In Rhode Island, our awful governor and now Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo took demands for free college tuition and developed a plan that would provide that in part but also filled it with up with a whole set of neoliberal higher education proposals as part of the deal. If you don’t pay attention to the details, this can happen. Luckily, she was only able to implement her destructive policies on higher education to a limited extent, much to her very great frustration and often outright anger.

Anyway, if we are going to be real about free college tuition, we have to understand that most public schools are funded at this point almost entirely on tuition dollars, very much including my own. That’s a broken system and one that freaked everyone out when COVID led to reduced enrollments. In fact, a lot of schools have in fact not had funding crises but have used supposed funding crises as an excuse to shock doctrine through all sorts of proposals to eviscerate the humanities, fire professors, etc. It’s bad times.

So if we are going to have free college tuition, the money lost has to be made up for if we are actually going to have both a) institutions of higher education remaining functional and b) 22 year olds not stuck with $50K or more of debt. This leads us to this quality proposal from Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal that would square this circle:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) introduced legislation on Wednesday to make college tuition free for many Americans, a policy that would be paid for by a tax on Wall Street. 

The bill would make community college tuition-free for everyone and four-year public colleges tuition-free and debt-free for students from families making up to $125,000 per year. 

“In the 21st century, a free public education system that goes from kindergarten through high school is no longer good enough. The time is long overdue to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and debt-free for working families,” Sanders said in a statement.

Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, added that the bill would “free students from a lifetime of debt, invest in working people, and transform higher education across America.”   

The bill would also allow students from families who make up to $125,000 per year to attend private, nonprofit minority-serving institutions tuition-free such as historically Black colleges and universities.

And it would double the maximum Pell Grant to $12,990, which can be used for living and nontuition expenses, and would expand eligibility to “Dreamers,” immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. 

The bill would be paid for by a tax on some Wall Street trades. Sanders said he would separately reintroduce a bill, known as the Tax on Wall Street Speculation Act, on Wednesday. It would put a 0.5 percent tax on stock trades, a 0.1 percent tax on bonds and a 0.005 tax on derivatives.

I obviously haven’t run the numbers, but neither Sanders nor Jayapal are amateurs. They are good solid progressive policy people. I trust their people. And assuming these numbers do add out, how is this not a great idea? These are minor taxes on Wall Street to fund what would make the entire nation a better place! I feel only monsters would oppose this.

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