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February 23, 2016

Many young voters say they’re drawn to Bernie Sanders because of his plan to make two years of public college tuition-free. (Associated Press)

During a raucous rally at the University of Massachusetts on Monday, Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders concluded his forty-five minutes stump speech with talk of his “free college” plan.

“People should not be penalized for getting an education,” Sanders told a cheering crowd.

Making two years of public college tuition-free is one of the Vermont senator’s most consistent applause lines on the stump. Sanders says he’ll pay for his plan by taxing stock traders.

“When Wall Street destroyed our economy, they went begging the United States Congress and the taxpayers of this country to bail them out. Now it is Wall Street’s turn, through a tax on speculation, to help the middle class of this country,” said Sanders.

That message is resonating with millennial voters still punch-drunk from the Great Recession, with many young Sanders supporters saying they’re drawn to the candidate because of his free college plan.

But would Bernie Sanders - if elected president - have the power to make two years of public college tuition-free? 

“I think the odds that a President Sanders could actually get legislation through that would make college free for everybody are very close to zero,” said Ron Haskins, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former advisor to President George W. Bush.

According to Haskins, both Sanders and Hillary Clinton - who has a college affordability plan of her own – are pandering to their base.

Related: What Are Presidential Candidates Proposing To Bring Down The Cost Of College?

While Democrats and Republicans want to make college more affordable, Haskins says the Democratic candidates know the White House can only do so much - like urge Congress to pass legislation tying federal funding to graduation or job placement rates.

“The power of the bully pulpit is very important,” said Haskins, adding that the president can use that power to argue that “these colleges are getting out of hand. They’re charging way too much. They should charge less.”

Still, students who support Bernie Sanders, are sold on the idea, and don’t think the Vermont senator is just telling students what they want to hear when he talks about free college.

“It’s not just Bernie that’s gonna make this stuff happen,” said UMass junior Uday Prakhya. “It’s us going and voting for the Senate that’s going to make this stuff happen.”

Earlier: Tuition Impossible: Politicians Call For Debt-Free College

confronting cost, new business models, increasing access and success

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