Joe Biden Calls For Free Public College For All

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Vice President Joe Biden announcing that he won't seek the presidential nomination

On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden announced that he won’t run for president. But he also took time to lay out a number of issues he wants to see addressed in the campaign, including college education.

“We’re fighting for 14 years,” he said, likely in reference to President Obama’s plan to provide two years of free community college. “We need to commit to 16 years of free public education for all our children,” he said.

“We all know that 12 years of public education is not enough,” he continued. “As a nation, let’s make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education 100 years ago.”

As he pointed out, the country guarantees free education from first through 12th grade, but students are by and large on their own to afford a college education. Tuition keeps climbing while student debt has tripled over the last decade. Today about 70 percent of students graduate with debt, owing $29,000 on average. Yet Pell Grants, the government’s direct aid program to help pay for the costs, cover the smallest percentage of college expenses since the program was created.

As a way to address the situation, President Obama announced a proposal in January to cover the cost of tuition for two years of community college for students who maintain a certain grade point average. The issue has also become a hot topic in the race for the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton has put forward a plan to allow students to go to college without taking out loans, and Martin O’Malley has proposed something similar.

Sanders has gone further, however, getting closer to what Biden called for on Wednesday. His plan would eliminate undergraduate tuition at all public four-year colleges and universities.

It might sound outlandish, but it wouldn’t actually have to cost the government extra money. Tuition at all of the country’s two- and four-year public higher education institutions came to $65 billion in 2013. The government already spends more than that to subsidize the cost of college educations through grants, tax breaks, work-study funds, and student loans. It could take that funding and instead use it to directly cover the cost of public education, giving students a free option. Doing so could also incentivize public institutions to lower their tuitions to compete with a public option.