Sanders and Jayapal have introduced similar legislation before, including last Congress, but it’s the first time they have introduced the measure with Democratic control of the Senate. President Joe Biden endorsed part of the 2017 version of the bill during his presidential campaign, but the legislation unveiled Wednesday goes further than that.
The Biden campaign promised to make two years of community college tuition free and provide tuition-free four-year college. The campaign did not mention expanding some programs, such as federal TRIO Programs for disadvantaged students, that target low-income or first-generation college students. It also didn’t include the funding mechanism that would tax stock and bond transactions.
Biden is reportedly exploring presidential authority to forgive student loans but has yet to decide how best to address the financial burden on student borrowers. White House chief of staff Ron Klain said last week the president has asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to prepare a memo on the president’s legal authority to cancel student debt.
Biden has previously suggested he does not have the authority to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt, saying he would “not make that happen” at a town hall in February.
Sanders, Jayapal and other progressives also have pushed the Biden administration to forgive up to $50,000 in student loan debt without the need for legislation.
Biden’s first budget proposal, released earlier this month, proposed a much smaller increase in Pell Grant awards, up to $6,895, as part of a record proposed increase in Department of Education funding. The current maximum for the 2021-22 school year is $6,495.
Expanding federal support for college education has bubbled up in Democratic politics for years — President Barack Obama spotlighted it in his 2015 State of the Union address — but it has not taken off.
The tuition-free college push from progressives may factor into any further talks over a broader bill on higher education. Talks have been on the back burner since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2019, the House Education and Labor Committee took up a Higher Education Act reauthorization, but it did not pass the chamber. Former Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee led the Republican side on efforts to renew the bill before his retirement at the end of last Congress.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.