Bernie Sanders Introduces ‘Free College’ Bill. Here’s Who Qualifies And How Much It Will Cost

On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pamila Jayapal introduced the “College for All Act,” which would make higher education “free” for students. The legislation applies to community colleges, four-year universities, and trade schools and would be paid for with a newly-proposed tax on Wall Street.

“In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, a higher education should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few,” Sanders said in a statement. “If we are going to have the kind of standard of living that the American people deserve, we need to have the best educated workforce in the world. 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. 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.”

If passed, the bill would make community colleges and trade schools tuition-free for Americans across the board. Public and private four-year universities would be free for students whose families Annual Gross Income (AGI) is $125,000 or less.

Under Sanders’ bill, the federal Pell Grant program would also be reformed. States and Indian territories would calculate the number of full-time and part-time students across their jurisdiction and use that information for a grant application. The federal government would then award funding to states and territories based on the number of students enrolled at public colleges, universities, and trade schools.

According to the bill’s text, the federal government would pick up the cost for 75% of a student’s tuition and fees. The state or territory is expected to cover the other 25%. If an institution receives any sort of private funding, 25% of it has to be directed towards eliminating students’ tuition and fees. States, however, are encouraged to pick up more of the tab.

“The Secretary shall encourage States to sustain and expand tuition-free ‘College Promise’ programs that are in existence on the date of enactment of the College for All Act of 2021, especially for programs that cover the ‘last dollar’ of tuition and fees after exhausting Federal and State aid,” the bill states.

The legislation also amends the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is used to determine grants and loan amounts. The change to the FAFSA would allow DREAMers to qualify for free college tuition.

How to qualify

In order to qualify for so-called “free” college, the student’s family has to be deemed part of the “working class and middle class.” That designation is based on the parents’ AGI from the previous year, and is awarded to those families making a household income of $125,000 or less. The government would base qualifications on Pell Grants awarded every year, beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.

Additional funds

States have to use federal grants to waive tuition and fees. Any additional fees from the federal government and private organizations can be used to “increase the quality of instruction and student support services.” This includes:

  • Expanding academic courses and occupational training.
  • Increasing the number of full-time faculty, with an emphasis on tenured or tenure-track faculty.
  • Providing faculty with additional training and development opportunities.
  • Expanding student support services, like academic advising and counseling.
  • Establishing education programs at state and local prisons and jails.
  • Any other areas that would “improve instructional quality and academic outcomes.”

Excess fees cannot be used for:

  • “Merit-based” financial aid.
  • Constructing non-academic buildings.
  • Salaries and/or benefits of school administrators.

Equity Grants

The bill also establishes “equity grants” for colleges and universities that are deemed “under-funded” to improve students’ education.

The term “under-funded institution” means a public 2-year institution of higher education or public 4-year institution of higher education that receives less than the national average State appropriations per full-time equivalent students, according to the bill.

Equity grants are for minority-dominated institutions that are geared towards Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives, and Indian tribes.

The grants are designed to improve student outcomes by:

  • Investing in remedial education.
  • Investing in “academic advisors, mental health counselors, trauma-informed care, and tutors.”
  • Reducing class sizes.

In order to receive the funds, the state has to match 25% of the federal government’s grant amount.

The cost 

Sanders’ legislation sets aside $10 billion in fiscal year 2022 for both types of grants.

It also sets aside an additional $3 billion per year beginning in fiscal year 2022 for federal TRIO programs. The eight TRIO programs are “designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds,” the website states.

Programs include:

  • Educational Opportunity Centers
  • Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement
  • Student Support Services
  • Talent Search
  • Training Program for Federal TRIO Programs Staff
  • Upward Bound
  • Upward Bound Math-Science
  • Veterans Upward Bound

Funding for TRIO programs is also set aside for fiscal years 2023-2031 if needed.

The bill also allocates $736 million for fiscal year 2022 for GEAR UP programs. The programs are “designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education,” the website states.

Funding for GEAR UP programs is also allocated for fiscal years 2023-2025 if needed.

How it’s funded

Sanders proposes paying for “free” college with another piece of legislation, the “Tax on Wall Street Speculation Act.” That bill would place a 0.5% tax on stock trades, a 0.1% fee on bonds, and a 0.005% fee on derivatives. According to Sanders’ office, the bill would raise $2.4 trillion in the next 10 years.


The bill text doesn’t address the following concerns:

  • Will students who receive Pell Grants continue to receive these grants on top of a “free” college education?
  • If students do continue to receive Pell Grants, in addition to their tuition and fees being covered, why does the amount they receive need to double?
  • What happens if the states refuse to pick up part of the tab?
  • How can the federal government force states to provide part of the funding for these grants?
  • What is the time limit, if any, a student has to finish their degree?
  • What is the purpose of telling institutions they can’t hand out federal financial aid based on merit?

Beth Baumann is a Political Reporter and Editor at The Daily Wire. Follow her on Twitter @eb454.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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