Congressional Democrats, including CA Sen. Padilla, launch bill to make college free for many students

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The U.S. Capitol building exterior is seen at sunset on March 8, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

The U.S. Capitol building exterior is seen at sunset on March 8, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

As millions of students struggle to pay the skyrocketing costs to attend college, a group of Democratic lawmakers this week unveiled a plan to cancel out the cost of higher education for many Americans and end what they describe as a spiral of debt.

The College for All Act would make community college and trade schools free for everyone, while public four-year colleges and universities, as well as nonprofit minority-serving institutions such as historically Black colleges, would be tuition-free for all students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year.

On top of that, the proposal seeks to double the maximum Pell Grant to nearly $13,000 for the 2021-2022 school year, and expand eligibility to “Dreamers” — students who are impacted by the DREAM Act, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

And, to help millions of low-income students, first-generation college students and students with disabilities, the bill triples federal TRIO and doubles GEAR up funding.

A summary of the bill touts it as “the most substantial expansion of higher education” since the Higher Education Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“It would make transformative, unprecedented investments in higher education” and “allow students in families who earn less than $125,000 a year to attend college without fear of being saddled with student loan debt,” the summary stated.

The plan would be paid for by new taxes on Wall Street speculation — including stock trades, bonds and derivatives — something that would raise as much as $2.4 trillion over the next decade.

About 75% of the cost to eliminate tuition and fees at public institutions would be shouldered by the federal government, with states taking up the remaining share.

The legislation was introduced Wednesday by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington.

 “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,” Sanders said. “The time is long overdue to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and debt-free for working families.”

More than a half-dozen Democrats in the Senate are cosponsoring the legislation, including California Sen. Alex Padilla.

“As a first-generation college student, I know the hurdles that far too many people face in accessing quality, affordable higher education,” Padilla said. “Every American deserves a shot at the American dream without having to make the impossible choice of earning a degree or being saddled with a lifetime of debt.”

For many, the financial burden of higher education lingers long after they earn their degree. More than 42 million Americans hold federal student loans amounting to a combined $1.5 trillion, according to Education Department data. And approximately 9 million student loan borrowers are in default of their federal loans.

The proposal for tuition-free college comes amid a push by lawmakers to forgive some student debt. In February, Padilla was among the cosponsors of a resolution that called for President Joe Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for federal borrowers through executive action.

Biden has previously signaled that he supports up to $10,000 in student loan forgiveness per borrower, and his administration is reviewing whether the president can use his authority to take steps to provide student debt relief without the aid of Congress.

Calls for debt forgiveness have been mounting following years of college tuition increases that have contributed to ballooning national student debt.

In an effort to provide relief soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, the Trump administration paused federal student loan payments and set interest rates at 0%. Upon taking office in January, Biden extended the moratorium through at least the end of September.

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