In an opinion piece for Vice Impact, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) discusses what he believes America actually needs to become "great": High-quality higher education delivered to citizens for free.
What would help is "not spending tens of billions more on or providing trillions in tax breaks for the rich," he writes. "It is having a well-educated population that can compete in the global economy, and making it possible that every American, regardless of income, has the opportunity to get the education they need to thrive."
However, he writes, "we are moving further and further away from that goal," thanks to the high cost of college.
have taken out student loans to pay for school, with their debt totaling $1.4 trillion. The for 20-year-olds is $22,135. For 30-year-olds, it's $34,033.
And while wages aren't rising much, . That could explain why the number of loan defaults .
"Our system of higher education is in a state of crisis," Sanders writes. "As tuition and fees rise and states cut funding for colleges and universities, American families are finding it difficult to afford college.
"Millions of graduates have had to take on life-long debt for the 'crime' of getting the education they need," he says. "For most, this debt will take many years to repay, which not only impacts their career choices, but also their ability to get married, have kids or buy a home."
Nearly 60 percent of borrowers don't expect to finish paying their loans , and less than 20 percent of Americans say they're living the American Dream because .
What's more, a survey of 1,000 Americans found nearly half said high costs were a factor in their decision not to pursue an education after high school. Of those who started but didn't complete a post-secondary program, 59 percent said the price was a factor.
For these reasons, Sanders wants to make college free. "In the richest country in the history of the world," he writes, "everyone who has the desire and the ability should be able to get a college education regardless of their background and ability to pay."
He adds, "This is not a radical idea. Many nations around the world invest in an educated workforce that isn't burdened with enormous student debt."
In Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, for instance, Sanders points out that public colleges and universities are free. In Germany, public colleges are free to both native and international students.
Some officials are working toward a similar system in the United States. This year, Sanders introduced the College for All Act, which aims to make colleges and universities tuition-free for families that earn $125,000 per year or less. That, he notes, covers 86 percent of the population.
The City College San Francisco has begun , and, in New York, students can now have the chance to . Similar programs have been launched in Tennessee, Oregon, Detroit and Chicago.
More jobs require advanced education, so, more than ever, a bachelor's degree needs to be in reach, he argues.
"While not all middle-class jobs in today's economy require post-secondary education, an increasing number do. By 2020," he writes, citing data from Georgetown University, "two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require some education beyond high school."
Workers with an associate degree, over the course of their careers, will earn an average $360,000 more than those with a high school diploma, the data notes. Those with a bachelor's will earn nearly $1 million more.
But Sanders wants to change that dynamic. "It is time for every child to understand that if they study hard and take their school work seriously, they will be able to get a higher education, regardless of their family's income. It's time to reduce the outrageous burden of student debt that is weighing down the lives of millions of college graduates."
Though, while recent progress has been made on the issue, he writes, "we still have a long way to go."
Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!