Bernie’s Big Idea

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Claiborne Pell — who the New York Times once called “the most formidable politician in Rhode Island history” — is best known as the namesake for the Pell Grant, which has been assisting low-income families with college costs for more than four decades.

But while the federal program is more popular than ever, at its maximum these days it covers less than one-third of tuition for the average recipient. That’s a far cry from its benefit when established. Back in the early 1970s it wiped out three-quarters of needy student’s tuition expense. And that was before an escalation of mandatory fees intended to foster the perception that college costs weren’t skyrocketing.

Well, now there is another U.S. Senator from New England — Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who has not only taken up the cause of free college, but has introduced legislation designed to eliminate public college tuition altogether. Sen. Sanders’ “College For All Act” would have the U.S. government pick up two-thirds of tuition for in-state students ($47 billion annually) and have the rest ($23 billion annually) covered by the states.

This proposal — which comes at a time when Congress is looking to slash educational assistance to needy students — would not only work to close the massive wealth gaps which have divided the country in recent years, but would also better position the U.S. to compete in a global economy, which is unlike anything previous generations have experienced.

“We live in a highly-competitive global economy and, if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated work force in the world,” said Sen. Sanders. “That will not happen if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and if millions more leave school deeply in debt.”

Presently both students and their families are frequently left with decades of debt in pursuit of the American dream. Student loan debt is expected to top $2 trillion in the coming years, which allows loan companies to thrive by encouraging every young person to at least “test the waters” of higher education. But even a short stint in college can place an insurmountable burden on students’ shoulders, particularly if the efforts in college prove unsuccessful.

The “College For All Act” will face steep opposition in today’s political climate, which has been mostly unsupportive of long-range endeavors like those which shaped the United States following the Great Depression. Sen. Sanders’ funding formula — which calls for a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street profits — will certainly face a wall of resistance, even though “the people” provided the bail out of Wall Street and banks just six years ago. Just a small percentage of the funds now flowing through the financial markets could help the country return to a big idea to provide opportunities for all.

And maybe some day soon we will be encouraging young people to apply for the new and improved “Sanders Grants,” which could drive a new economic vision for the nation.

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