Title I of the legislation establishes a new grant program for public higher education institutions. According to Senator Sanders’ office, tuition at American public universities is about $70 billion per year. S. 1373 would authorize the federal government to provide $47 billion in fiscal year 2016 to state governments in order to cover 2/3 of that cost. In exchange, state governments would be responsible for making investments in higher education that reduce reliance on low-paid adjunct faculty, improve academic instruction, and improve the availability of need-based financial aid. The legislation specifies the funding level for only the first year. Subsequent years are authorized “such sums as may be necessary.”
Title II of the bill addresses student loans. Student loans now account for more debt than credit cards and cars, with 40 million borrowers across America owing about $1.2 trillion. The demand for higher education continues to grow as employers prioritize degrees and the government incentivizes their pursuit, which means the cost to attend college is unlikely to decrease any time soon. Taxpayers continue to subsidize billions of dollars in loans to students who may not be able to pay them back as they graduate into a weak job market, creating concern among some economists that student loan debt may be the next “bubble” to burst and severely impact financial markets at home and abroad.
The bill would cap interest rates for student loans at 8.25 percent, and enables those who borrowed at higher rates to refinance their loans at lower current ones (as in Senator Warren’s proposal, which the Congressional Budget Office determined would cost $60.9 billion in the first year). Senator Sanders’ legislation differs from Senator Warren’s in that it would tie all future student loan interest rates (those issued after July 1, 2015) to the bond equivalent rate of 91-day Treasury bills. Doing so would likely result in even lower interest rates than those that would be realized in Sen. Warren’s proposal and thus higher costs to the federal government.
Title III of the bill increases spending for the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program. FWS subsidizes part-time work programs for undergraduate and graduate students who can demonstrate financial need. It was last authorized in 2009 for “such sums as may be necessary.” In FY 2015 FWS received $992 million in appropriations. Sanders’ bill wouldset specific authorization for the next five years, starting at $975 million in FY 2016 and increasing to $3 billion by FY 2020. The table above shows the net change that would occur under this bill compared to current funding levels.
Free tuition isn’t cheap. All told, Senator Sanders’ sweeping legislation would increase federal spending by at least $109.9 billion in the first year alone. While the proposal should theoretically reduce demand for student aid programs such as Pell Grants and federally-backed student loans, there are no spending reductions in the legislation.
To pay for the new spending, the College for All Act would enact a new “Inclusive Prosperity” tax on certain financial transactions. Also introduced as stand-alone legislation in S. 1371 (also by Senator Sanders with one cosponsor), and H.R. 1464 (introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) with 26 cosponsors), transactions would be taxed at a rate of 0.5 percent (stocks), 0.1 percent (bonds), or 0.005 percent (derivatives).
Unlike a related yet more comprehensive transaction tax proposal (with a slightly lower rate) that would also repeal the existing income, corporate, and payroll taxes, the “Inclusive Prosperity” tax would be in addition to existing rates. Supporters of the tax, also known as the Robin Hood Tax, claim it would raise up to $300 billion per year. France and Italy each saw a drop in trade volume after enacting a similar tax. It is unclear if this was factored into the estimate for the proposal here in the U.S.“We live in a highly competitive global economy. If our economy is to be strong, we need the best educated work force in the world. 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,” Sanders said in a statement.