Tuesday night, Sen. Bernie Sander’s brought his "College for All" campaign to a cheering crowd of about 400 at Castleton University.
During the presidential primary last year, Sanders captured a huge segment of the under-35 vote and many say his call for free higher education was a big reason why.
In April, Sanders introduced a bill in the Senate to eliminate tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities for students from families that make up to $125,000 per year.
His College for All Act would make community college tuition-free for all income levels.
Calling it an economic imperative for the nation, he urged students in the audience and those watching via live stream on other campuses to push lawmakers to take action on the proposal.
Twenty-two-year old Christopher Leipfert is a student at Castleton University who says the issue is critical to may young people.
“That’s why I’m here tonight,” said Leipfert, “I want to see him talk about one of the things that really kind of hits home for me [because] I’m like $40,000 in debt for college now.”
Leipfert is by no means alone.
Sanders told the crowd that Americans owe more than $1.3 trillion in student debt, which he says is crushing many families and causing young people to give up their dreams.
Four Vermont women joined Sanders on stage and each told stories of how they and their families have been hurt by overwhelming student loans.
It’s a point that resonated with 19-year old Emily Fortier, a Castleton student from Hartland, Vermont.
“I’m a big Bernie fan and I really agree that college should be less expensive for students,” she said. “I am responsible for paying solely for my education and I want to be a teacher. And teachers don’t make a high salary and so having the ability to pay for school and having it be really affordable is very important to me."
Sanders told the crowd that paying for tuition is a necessary investment, because by 2020, he said it’s estimated that two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require some education beyond high school.
“The current situation regarding the financing of higher education is not only unfair to the working families of the united states but is incredibly stupid when we look at the long term needs of our economy,” said Sanders.
“And what I want, and what I know you want, is for every mom and dad and teacher and child in this country to know that a college education is not unattainable despite the income of your family and that’s what we’ve got to accomplish,” he said to cheers.
Under Sanders plan the federal government would pay for two-thirds of tuition costs and each state would pick up the rest. His plan would also cut interest rates on student loans and prohibit the federal government from making a profit off them.
Sanders says his plan will cost an estimated $569 billion over 10 years which he says he would pay for by imposing a new tax on stock market trading.
He says taxpayers bailed out Wall Street after the 2008 meltdown. “Now it is Wall Street's time to help rebuild the middle class of this country,” he said to rousing applause.
With Republicans controlling Congress and the White House, political experts don’t expect Sander's bill to get very far.
But Helen Mango, a professor of geology at Castleton hopes the Vermont lawmaker will continue to push for the bill’s passage despite the opposition. “Fight the good fight, take the long view,” she urged.
“If enough people get the idea that this is something that we need to support as a country it will happen,” she said. “It has to, our young people need it.”
Doug Freilich of Middletown Springs agrees. As a small business owner with two kids getting ready to head to college, he says how to pay for their education is looming and he appreciates Sander’s efforts despite the long odds.
“Bernie represents that element of hope, of if you have a thought that’s a good one you share it and you don’t hold it in. And the fact that you throw a dart as far out as you can and you work your way backwards,” said Freilich.
He says as to what will happen next with the bill, “that’s for society to debate and chew on."