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Sen. Bernie Sanders wants free tuition at four-year public colleges. Here’s why it won’t work.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation to eliminate undergraduate tuition fees. The presidential candidate said the federal government should pay for the initiative by imposing a tax on Wall Street. (Video: YouTube/Bernie Sanders)

Imagine graduating from college without a dime in debt. No monthly loan payments to Navient, AES or Great Lakes. No calculation of whether to take that dream job paying peanuts or settle on one offering enough money to quickly lift you out of the hole.

That's the kind of future Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants to create with his proposal for free tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. But is it feasible?

On Tuesday, Sanders introduced legislation that would eliminate undergraduate tuition at public colleges and expand work-study programs to help students at private universities. The bill also calls for a reduction in interest rates on federal student loans to stop the government from profiting off of lending to young people.

“We once led the world in the percentage of our people with a college degree, now we are in 12th place.” Sanders said. “Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people. They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”

Sanders estimates that his plan would cost $70 billion per year -- about $10 billion more than president Obama's proposal for free community college. States under Sanders's plan would have to put up $1 for every $2 the federal government ponies up, shifting more of the cost of public higher education to Washington. The federal share of the expense would be offset by imposing a tax on transactions by hedge funds, investment houses and other Wall Street firms.

To qualify for federal funding, states would need to maintain spending on their higher education systems, academic instruction and need-based financial aid. Sanders would also have colleges reduce their reliance on low-paid adjunct faculty, hire new faculty and provide professional development for professors. No funding under his plan could be use to pay for administrator salaries, merit-based financial aid or the construction of stadiums or student centers.

The independent senator from Vermont takes aim at almost everything in academia that has been identified as a cost driver -- pricey sports stadiums, high-paid administrators. And he attempts to reverse trends, like the increased use of adjuncts, that have been blamed for the deteriorating value of a college degree.

But so much of what Sanders is calling for would take a level of enforcement and compliance that would be difficult to achieve, said Iris Palmer, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation. More importantly, she questioned whether free tuition would be sustainable if it encouraged more people to go to college.

"What happens at the next recession when the money from Wall Street drops and the number of students enrolling in college swells? How could a program like this be sustained?" Palmer said. "And how would you keep institutions from consistently increasing what they say it costs to educate a student?"

Another hurdle is sustaining state investment, which rises and falls the economy. A big part of the reason public colleges are so expensive now is because states slashed higher education budgets during recessions and never fully made up for the loss and schools raised tuition to compensate. While some states might be enticed by the promise of federal aid, others may continue to treat higher education as a discretionary expense.

Still, Sanders's plan is ambitious. And while the legislation is a political nonstarter in this Republican-controlled Congress, it builds on a platform of college access and affordability that has become a tenet of the progressive agenda.

Congressional Democrats, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), have introduced a slate of resolutions calling for the elimination of student debt at public college and the increase of federal grant aid. It is part of a larger push to promote debt-free college as major issue in the 2016 presidential race, in which Sanders is a declared candidate.

[Liberal Democrats pressure Clinton to advocate 'debt-free college']

The Democratic presidential hopeful is trying to distinguish himself from party front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has yet to take a position on the debt-free college initiative, although she has mentioned rising student debt as a focus of her campaign.

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