Biden, in a swing state, addresses student anxiety over college costs

Vice President Biden sought Friday to remind Pennsylvania high-schoolers of the value of higher eduction – and how the Obama administration is trying to control college costs. The state's Class of 2010 owes an average of $28,599 per graduate – the fifth highest debt level in the US. 

Alex Brandon/AP
Vice President Joe Biden answers a question from the audience at Central Bucks High School West, Friday, in Doylestown, Pa. Biden spoke about making college affordable and took questions from the audience.

Vice President Joe Biden on Friday sought to convince high-schoolers that the Obama administration has their back when it comes to reining in runaway tuition costs, acknowledging that many parents are questioning the value of a college education in today's economy.

His mission was to acknowledge their concerns – and remind them (and their families), in an election year, of what the Democratic-led White House has endeavored to do on their behalf. The challenges to his message are that states, not the federal government, have control over tuition rates at public colleges and universities, and that education costs remain stressfully high despite some relief due to an expansion of financial aid and tax credits.

“A college education is slipping out of the grasp of an awful lot of people now," Mr. Biden acknowledged before at a town-hall-style meeting of students from Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Pa. "For the first time you have a slight majority of American parents ... questioning whether or not the cost of a college education is worth it.” 

In Pennsylvania, average debt was the fifth highest in the country for the college graduating class of 2010 – $28,599 for students at public and nonprofit four-year institutions – and 70 percent of that class graduated with some debt, according to The Institute for College Access & Success.

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Biden said the United States has slipped to 16th in the world in the proportion of young people earning a college degree. Thus, improving affordability “is not just about helping you, this is not just about keeping a commitment to the middle class," he said. "This is about making sure America’s the strongest nation in the world.”

Biden has given similar talks in Ohio and Florida recently, part of the Obama administration’s efforts to address growing anxiety about the price of college and to highlight steps it has taken to boost federal grants and make loans easier to pay off.

With growth in tuition costs far outpacing income and other consumer price increases, surveys show college affordability is a great source of concern for many American families.

Only 22 percent believe most people can afford to pay for college, down from 39 percent in 1985, according to a survey last spring by the Pew Research Center in Washington. Only 5 percent say the higher education system is providing excellent value for the money.

Yet college officials, the Obama administration, and many families still view college as an essential investment in both individuals’ and the nation’s future. Ninety-four percent of parents expect their children to go to college, the Pew survey found.

While Biden and other federal officials can use the bully pulpit to push for solutions to the cost problem, “the biggest problem right now is state budgets and increasing tuition at public universities as a result, and the federal government has very limited influence over that,” says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at George Washington University School of Education.

Ultimately, the biggest help, she says, would be an improved economy so that families have jobs and so that revenues start flowing again into state coffers.

But she and others give the Obama administration credit for steps it has taken. Among them, according to the US Department of Education:

Reforming student loans. By making all federal loans directly and eliminating subsidies for banks that had been acting as middlemen, the US government will save $60 billion over 10 years, the Obama administration estimates. Its plan is to invest most of that into federal Pell Grants.

Boosting Pell Grants. The maximum grant now for low- to middle-income students is $5,500 a year, up from $4,731 in 2008.

Tax credits. Through the American Opportunity Tax Credit, 9.4 million families in 2011 received as much as $2,500 for tuition, fees, and textbook expenses.

Loan repayment improvements. Graduates who are eligible can cap their monthly repayment bills at 10 to 15 percent of their discretionary income and have the remainder of their loans forgiven after 20 years of payments. Public service workers can have loans forgiven after 10 years.

President Obama, Biden, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have also been meeting with college presidents, financial aid professionals, and even college athletics leaders to urge them to do more to cut costs.

“I want to ask you, and the entire higher education community, to look ahead and start thinking more creatively – and with much greater urgency – about how to contain the spiraling costs of college and reduce the burden of student debt on our nation’s students,” Secretary Duncan said at a conference of federal student aid officials in November.

The administration hopes to have such conversations, as well, with governors and state legislators, who have a major role in overseeing state budgets and public universities, says a Department of Education spokesman.

For their part, institutions of higher education “have taken an increasing proportion of their tuition revenue and repurposed it for financial aid ... [and they are] stepping into the breach here in ways that are smart, that are novel, and that are improving productivity,” says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education in Washington.

She offers as an example the University of Wisconsin system, with more than 25 campuses, which has lost about $500 million in state funds over the past five years. At the same time, she says, it has added 12,000 students. Tuition has jumped about 5.5 percent for several years running, but the system has also increased financial aid from about $6 million to $20 million in the past four years.

Studies are also under way to see if using online education at the college level can provide equal or better-quality learning experience for less cost, Ms. Broad says.

But while technology can help, its role will be very different in education than in other sectors of the economy such as manufacturing, so online learning shouldn’t be seen as a panacea, says Ms. Baum.

As an election year gets under way, it’s perhaps no coincidence that Biden’s talks are taking place in swing states. 

In response to Biden’s visit, Republican National Committee spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said in a statement, “Vice President Biden can try to spin President Obama’s record of broken promises and failed policies all he wants, but with every visit to Pennsylvania, they remind voters how much worse off they are.”

Biden kept his comments nonpartisan, personal, and inspirational, and complimented a local Republican congressman in attendance.

He recalled his own father’s sadness at being turned down for a loan to help the young Biden attend the University of Delaware. And as a parent himself, he said, he was able to help pay for his three children’s college educations in part by borrowing against his home equity. Because of the recession, he explained to the students, most families don’t have enough value in their homes to do that now.

Among young adults of all political stripes, 68 percent say college affordability should be Congress’s top priority, according to a Demos and Young Invincibles poll this fall.

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