NEPTUNE BEACH, Fla. -- Vice President Joe Biden raised alarms about the rising cost of college to a sympathetic audience of high school students, parents and teachers Thursday, as the Obama 2012 campaign lays out its central theme of saving the middle class.
"A degree is no longer a luxury," Biden said to the audience at Fletcher High School. "The incredible cost of college education is for the first time crushing hundreds of parents."
Biden, who appeared with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, peppered his speech with personal anecdotes about paying for his and his children's college education. "I come from a family like a lot of [yours], I come from a circumstance where I know how hard it is and how much debt is accumulated by our sons and daughters," Biden said.
As Duncan later told The Huffington Post, "This is a very personal battle for him."
Although Biden never overtly discussed the reelection campaign, he linked the administration's limited accomplishments in the realm of college affordability to the struggles of the middle class, the campaign theme that President Barack Obama recently laid out in Kansas.
"What's happened now is that, as I said today in the speech, my perspective, the president's perspective, is the bottom really fell out of middle class households," Biden told HuffPost in an interview on Air Force II.
The idea to push the middle class education message, he said, arose during budget negotiations with Congress. "When I was asked to try to come up with a budget deal with the Republicans, it amazed me: The first thing they wanted to cut was education," Biden said.
"At the same time, they're saying we've got to maintain tax breaks for the top 1 percent," Biden continued. "The president and I ... said, for real, we gotta do more. We gotta figure this out. That's why we decided to try to tie this in where it is with the plight of middle class families. It's sort of in America's DNA."
Isaiah Kinder, a Fletcher High junior who wants to be a nurse, feels the financial crunch Biden described. "I'm not concerned about getting into college," he said. "I'm concerned about paying for it."
As Biden outlined in his speech, the Obama administration has been chipping away at the issue of college affordability. Pell grants have been expanded, for example, and a $2,500 college tax credit was written into the 2009 stimulus package. But the evidence is still mounting that college, while increasingly important for economic mobility, is becoming a "rich man's" luxury, in Biden's words.
College costs are rising at a rate faster than inflation. States with recession-driven budget holes are cutting funds for and driving up the costs of public universities. Tuition keeps hitting record highs, according to a College Board report. It's now $8,000 for a full credit load at a public university, an 8 percent increase over last year. This year, the $1 trillion in student-loan debt exceeded credit-card debt. The class of 2010 graduated with an average debt of more than $25,000.
In October, as the Occupy Wall Street protests began highlighting the plight of college students, the administration announced some tweaks to help students pay back college loans in a more manageable fashion. The plan allows future graduates to consolidate their federal loans at a slightly lower interest rate. The administration also accelerated an existing plan to cap student loan payments at 10 percent of discretionary income and to forgive remaining college debt after 20 years, instead of 15 percent and 25 years.
But the new loan repayment caps only apply to current and future students, leaving indebted graduates in the lurch.
"We can't make it retroactive," Biden told HuffPost, adding, "The contracts have already been sold. ... Without cooperation, and putting the money in the budget where it should go in the budget, we have some limitations of what we can do." The vice president said that will change when Democrats "win back the House."
Education Secretary Duncan was also on message last week when he talked to financial aid officers at the Federal Student Aid conference about the "urgency" of containing the "spiraling costs of college" and reducing the "burden of student debt." This past Monday, Obama and Duncan discussed affordability with college presidents.
Next, the administration will push a proposal to create incentives for colleges to contain costs. For example, Duncan's 2012 budget proposal includes a new "First in the World" $25 million competition that would reward colleges for reducing their net prices.
Universities "can't continue to look to federal assistance as their way out," Biden said.
But with a gridlocked Congress, it is unclear whether Obama and Biden's efforts can help students pay for college now as much as their rhetoric could help their reelection campaign win the youth vote next year.
"Their chances of getting more money now is about zero," said Jack Jennings, a former Democratic congressional aide who now runs the Center for Education Policy.
Biden acknowledges that "what we can do is make the case to the public."
But students want to see action. "Joe should push in some legislation to help me pay for college," said Kinder, the Fletcher High junior. "We need support."