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Can free college really be done in America?
As part of his campaign for president, Sanders has introduced a bill in the Senate that aims to make all four-year public universities free. - photo by JJ Feinauer
Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist senator from Vermont (or, more appropriately, the democratic socialist from Vermont), doesn't seem to mind that very few pundits believe he has a shot at the presidency, despite the fact that he's one of only two declared candidates for the Democratic ticket in 2016.

"I fully concede that I get into this race as a major underdog. No question about it," Sanders said in an interview with CNBC. But he also believes that "we're going to do better than people think. And I think we got a shot to win this thing."

But maybe winning isn't the point. As consumer advocate and former long-shot presidential candidate Ralph Nader wrote in the L.A. Times , "Short of winning the presidency there are many other rewards for running."

According to Nader, running for president can boost one's visibility to heights otherwise unimaginable, especially for candidates like Sanders who hold less than mainstream policy positions.

"Who first put forth issues such as the abolition of slavery, women's right to vote, Social Security, farm and labor reforms?" Nader asked in his op-ed. "Little third parties, of course, that never won a national election."

Even though Sanders hasn't necessarily declared that his candidacy is purely about more visability for his positions, his candidacy has already sparked a widespread, and arguably unexpected, debate about one of his core policy points: Free college.

As part of his campaign for president, Sanders has introduced a bill in the Senate that aims to make all four-year public universities free. As I wrote last month, Sanders hopes to expand President Obama's free community college proposal in an effort to ease the financial burden of higher education.

"Lets give Sanders big props for putting this out there," The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky wrote on Wednesday. "If Sanders can effectively press his case for a few months, maybe Hillary will back it, too."

To pundits like Tomasky, whether or not Sanders wins is beside the point. Reduced college costs is a worthy goal, and hopefully Sanders can help push the dialogue further forward.

The Guardian's Jana Kasperkevic agrees, arguing that "debt-free college" will likely become a major policy emphasis for 2016, at least among Democrats. But even Republicans might come around, according to Kasperkevic, if "the voice of the voters and their rallying behind the issue" become strong enough.

But not everyone is convinced that shooting for a "free for all" education is a reasonable policy goal.

"Even more important than how much we spend and who we spend it on, we should ask ourselves what impact free public college would have on the delivery system of higher education," Kevin James wrote in U.S. News and World Report. "That is, would free college make higher education more efficient, more innovative and higher quality?"

That question, according to James, makes the prospects of cheaper college a lot more complicated.

"Fundamentally, the 'price' of free public college is more than the money taxpayers would spend on it," he continued. "By moving us to a system based largely on public institutions managed through top-down regulation, Sanders' proposal would exacerbate the challenges not solve them."

Sanders believes the best way to fund these potentially free four-year public colleges is by "using a new tax on stock trades to raise an estimated $47 billion in revenue," according to Vox's Libby Nelson. But there are those who believe scooping the money up from Wall Street won't be as easy as it sounds.

"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?" Iris Palmer, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation, told The Washington Post. "And how would you keep institutions from consistently increasing what they say it costs to educate a student?"

Still, even if college can't feasibly become free, there are those who argue trying might, at the very least, make Washington think more seriously about the rising costs of college.

"It would be nice if Sanders' bill were treated seriously," Slate's Jordan Weissmann wrote after discussing the strengths and shortcomings of his bill. "The man wants to refund our public college infrastructure. Sure, he might be a fringe candidate, but this shouldn't be a fringe idea."