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Senator Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act, Explained

There has been an onslaught of debt-free and tuition-free college plans in recent years, but one that is not getting much attention is the Debt-Free College Act. The Act was introduced to Congress earlier this year and some experts say it may be the answer to providing low-income students a debt-free college experience.

Senator Brian Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act is different from many other debt and tuition-free plans, such as those by Democratic front runners Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, because it goes beyond just making public schools tuition-free, it also covers students living costs. This means eligible students would receive money to cover not only tuition but also books, room, and board during their time in college.

“What sets the Debt-Free College Act apart is that this bill folds in the cost of living that represents the true cost of college,” said Paydon Miller, the press secretary at Young Invincibles, a non-profit that works on a variety of issues that impact people ages 18 to 34.  

Schatz introduced the Act to Congress earlier this year. and currently has support from 42 members of Congress, including presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris.

The main goal of Schatz’s plan is to try and get states to reinvest money back into their public colleges. His plan proposes a dollar for dollar system, meaning for every dollar the states invest in covering students costs the federal government would match it.

Since the 2008 recession states have been investing less and less into their public higher education system and in 2017 states invested $9 billion less than in 2008 according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Schatz hopes to end this trend by providing states a monetary incentive to invest in their public colleges. 

Bigger College Debt Picture

College debt is a hot topic at the moment but the implications of living with school debt are far-reaching, said Miller. More people are delaying financial milestones, such as getting married and buying a house, he said, because of the debt that continuously follows them.

“The thing about the student debt crisis is that it has so many tentacles and it touches so many pieces of young people’s lives,” said Miller.

Additionally, in the United States, Miller said the cost of a four-year public college degree has increased by 30 percent in the past decade. 

“Students, especially low-income students and students of color are being faced with this impossible choice of either being buried in debt that may follow them for the rest of their lives or try to enter the workforce without the education they need to find a decent job. That’s an impossible choice,” said Miller.

Who is Eligible Under This Act?

This bill does not make college free for everyone, rather it focuses on students that are eligible for the federal Pell Grant but did not receive it because funds ran out, Miller said to The College Post. The state and federal money must be awarded to these students first, he said, and then any extra money can be awarded to other low-income students who aren’t eligible for the Pell Grant. 

“There are students that qualified for Pell but didn’t receive awards,” said Miller. “They would come first.” 

By allocating the state and federal partnership funds to low-income students it means that students who come from wealthy families or are able to pay for college out of their own pocket would not be receiving any money.  

“If at the end of the day the compelling interest in our society is to get more students with bachelor’s degrees, the best way to do that is by targeting the money at those who really need the assistance to go to college,” said Donald Heller, the Provost at the University of San Francisco.

Also, if funding was given to students who are able to afford to pay for college Heller believes there would be a shift of students from private colleges to public colleges, which would make it harder for low-income students to attend public schools. 

Will This Act Pass?

The consensus among experts The College Post spoke to is that a college reform plan will be very hard to pass if Democrats are not in control of Congress and the White House.

“My sense is that whether or not any of these proposals ultimately depend on the makeup of the various houses of Congress and how the Presidential race shapes out,” said Miller. “Right now we are seeing a lot of proposals where the Senate is not necessarily open to a lot of these solutions.”

The Debt-Free College Act also comes with a large price tag, it’s estimated to cost $80.1 billion in its first year of the federal-state partnership. Where this money would come from is not specified, but Heller believes that it is too much.

“In terms of whether it is a reasonable amount of money to spend from public coffers,” Heller said to The College Post. “No, It’s not a reasonable amount.”

The Act has still not made it to the Senate or House floor to be voted on, but Schatz told Vox earlier this year that now that Democrats control the House he believes the Act will gain more momentum.

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