As the first debate in the Democratic primaries approaches, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Announced his proposed policy to cancel student debt. Outside the United States Capitol on Monday, Sanders outlined his plan write off $ 1.6 trillion in student loans by levying a financial transaction tax on Wall Street.

During the announcement, the Vermont senator used an old-fashioned favorite speech – this university in the United States was mostly tuition free throughout the 20th century – but with an addendum.

Sanders said a federal low-income student financial aid program, which unlike loans does not need to be repaid, covered almost all of the cost of a university education in the late 1970s .

“Forty years ago, a federal Pell grant paid almost 80% of tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year college,” Sanders said.

Sanders went on to say that while the Pell grant no longer covers college costs, his student debt cancellation proposal would give the financial aid grant a significant boost.

It made us wonder: did the Pell scholarships really cover almost all of the tuition fees four decades ago? We reached out to the Sanders campaign as well as several higher education finance experts to find out.

Strong evidence

A spokesperson for the Sanders campaign referred us to a Guidance Note 2017 from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank that studies federal and state budget policies.

In this analysis, the authors write that in 2017, “Pell (covered) only 29% of the average costs of tuition, fees, room and board at four-year public colleges,” which was “its lowest level in over 40 years and well below the 79% it covered in 1975.”

Spiros Protopsaltis, author of the dissertation and associate professor of educational policy at George Mason University, said he believed Sanders’ statement to be correct.

Protopsaltis explained that in 1975 the average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at a four-year public facility was $ 1,779, according to Board of Directors data compiled by the authors. The maximum Pell grant that year was $ 1,400, or 79% of the total cost.

Here is the catch

Donald Heller, the rector and vice president of academic affairs at the University of San Francisco, who has done research on higher education funding, agrees with what Sanders said on Monday – with an emphasis important guard.

Protopsaltis’ analysis, showing that grants cover 80% of college costs, only applies to public universities, not private institutions.

“This is an important distinction because it covered less the cost of a four-year private college or university,” Heller said.

According to College Board data shared by Protopsaltis, the maximum Pell grant in 1975 would have covered only about 38% of the total cost of attending a private four-year nonprofit school, where the average cost of tuition tuition, fees, room and board averaged $ 3,682.

This is important to keep in mind. Because the high cost of the university, when it comes to public higher education, is also linked to the deep cuts in funding that state governments have made to their university systems.

“It’s not just that Pell has been completely divested. A big part of that is that states have divested as well, which has driven up tuition fees,” said Wesley Whistle, senior policy adviser. education of New America.

Our decision

Sanders said that 40 years ago a “federal Pell grant paid nearly 80% of tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year college.”

While this is true for four-year public colleges, it is not for four-year private institutions.

Based on data the Vermont senator cited for his statement, a Pell grant would cover just 38% of the cost of a private university in the late 1970s – well in excess of the nearly 80% of Sanders costs. said the grants covered a “four-year college.”

While Sanders’ statement is accurate, it leaves out the important context that this number only refers to a four-year public college. We rate this statement to be quite true.



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