ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And now how one of Bernie Sanders' biggest campaign promises was adapted to the Democratic Party's platform. Sanders campaigned for free tuition at public colleges. Hillary Clinton focused more on easing student debt. Well, when the Vermont senator addressed the Democratic National Convention this week, he described the compromise plan that the two had agreed on.
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BERNIE SANDERS: It will guarantee - guarantee - that the children of any family in this country with an annual income of a hundred and twenty-five thousand a year or less - 83 percent of our population will be able to go to a public college or university tuition-free.
SIEGEL: What's the proposal? How would it work? How much would it cost? Well, joining me to explore those questions is Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed Team. Hi.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi.
SIEGEL: This is a plan for in-state tuition, we should say, for families that make $85,000 a year or less at the beginning. That would eventually rise to a hundred twenty-five thousand dollars. How much would this cost the government?
KAMENETZ: Well, estimates range widely. The Sanders campaign had originally put out an estimate of $75 billion a year for free tuition across the board. If you look at what public colleges collect in tuition, it's about $58 billion a year. Wherever it would be, it would be more than twice as much what the federal government is currently spending on student aid.
SIEGEL: Public universities, of course, are run by states, in some cases cities, not by the federal government. Would this plan affect all public colleges and universities in the country?
KAMENETZ: Well, you're making a really important point, Robert, because unlike student debt proposals that Hillary had included in her campaign platform, you know, student debt is under the full purview of the federal government, the Department of Education. But tuition is something that colleges can decide on, and we have 50 state university systems in this country, and they're very heterogeneous. And they charge very different tuition.
SIEGEL: But it would be a state-by-state question. Is your state taking part in this program?
KAMENETZ: Well, I think so. I mean, at the extreme end, the federal government could say, you're not allowed to participate in Title IV student aid, unless you eliminate tuition. And that would be, you know, the extreme nuclear option. But, you know, with a negotiating process, you can certainly think of a situation just like with Obamacare - right? - where certain states decide not to participate, even though they're leaving federal money on the table.
SIEGEL: The range is huge. I was looking up tuition costs at the Virginia Public University, the college of William and Mary - over $19,000 a year, at Eastern Kentucky University - under $8,000 a year. I mean, would the federal government tolerate those different ranges or would taxpayers want to see the same tuition rate?
KAMENETZ: Well, this is something that's extremely tricky about creating a subsidy program - right? - I mean, you can see it with Medicare. With Medicare, the federal government creates reimbursement rates, and they pretty much dictate them because they have a lot of market power. But this is a system that's been around for a very long time, and in creating a new one, there's a lot of dilemmas. I mean, would you create a voucher per student? And would it be the average of, you know, those two figures somewhere between $14,000, $18,000 and $8,000? I mean, that - it's a very difficult set of negotiations.
SIEGEL: What's been the reaction to the Democratic proposal among state leaders and people in higher education? Are they taking it seriously?
KAMENETZ: There's a lot of talk about free college tuition across the political spectrum, the policy world, you know, and states have a variety of different ways of collecting money for higher education. Some of them are more tuition-dependent than others. And so, you know, I don't see any states really rushing to be the first in line to abolish all public university tuition. And, in fact, the trend has been the opposite. Since 2011, states have been collecting more money in tuition from students than they actually directly subsidize their own university systems with.
SIEGEL: If enacting a free-tuition plan for public colleges and universities is at best, as I'm hearing from you, an uphill climb are there more promising fronts trying to address the cost of higher education?
KAMENETZ: Within Hillary Clinton's campaign platform is a pledge to continue free community college, and that was an initiative that was adopted originally by the Obama administration and actually has been getting quite a bit of traction on the state level. You know, paying for two years of college at the least expensive colleges in the state where more working class students go strikes people as being, you know, more practical, less expensive and also more targeted to the students that might really need the help.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Anya, thanks.
KAMENETZ: Thank you, Robert.
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