TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Vice President Joe Biden made a pitch Monday for the Obama administration's proposals to make college affordable, including punishing schools that fail to keep their costs down, but he said that probably won't apply to low-tuition states such as Florida.
Florida State University President Eric Barron, who met privately with Biden before he addressed students and faculty at the school, said he was encouraged by the vice president's comments.
"I wanted him to understand how inexpensive Florida really is because we have a substantial amount of money that goes into student scholarships, and tuition has been kept low," Barron said.
Visits to Tallahassee by Education Secretary Arne Duncan two weeks ago and now Biden came on the heels of President Barack Obama announcing proposals to make college more affordable. They include withholding federal aid from schools that don't keep net tuition down and provide good value.
"We're not looking to cut tuition," Biden said in response to a student's question. "We're looking forward to make sure in the next 20 years it doesn't increase 300 percent again."
Biden said that's how much tuition has gone up over the past two decades nationally, but noted Florida's rates started low and have gone up much less than in most states.
"So it's unlikely any of this would affect FSU," he said. "For real, not just saying that. That's reality."
Biden said the administration would use a sliding scale to determine which schools would receive funding from a pot of direct aid that pays for such things as student loans and work study. He said the president wants to increase that fund from $2 billion to $10 billion.
Barron said the sliding scale should be based on how much tuition increases in terms of dollars, not percentage. He said a 4 percent increase for Pennsylvania's state university system would be the dollar equivalent of a 15 percent increase in Florida.
"The key here is if they set the rules based on your percentage increase, then these universities that are really cheap are going to look like they're raising tuition through the roof," Barron said.
Florida's tuition rates have gone up 15 percent annually for the past four years. Tuition currently is about $5,300 annually for in-state undergraduates, but that still ranks about 45th in the nation, State University System officials say.
Biden said colleges and universities would be rewarded for keeping costs down, similar to how Obama's Race to the Top program rewards states for innovation in elementary and secondary schools. He cited such cost-saving examples as fast-tracking students to degrees in three years instead of four and bulk-purchasing items such as computers in conjunction with other government agencies.
"We're not going to say unless a university keeps tuition from escalating well beyond inflation that you can't use your college aid to go to that school," Biden said.
State University System officials criticized the administration's plans before Biden's appearance because they were afraid students would lose financial aid.
"Students are struggling under the weight of ever-increasing loans," Board of Governors Chairman Dean Colson said in a statement. "Penalizing them now, especially when Florida is among the nation's lowest tuition for public universities, would be shame."
State University System spokeswoman Kelly Layman said after Biden spoke that officials hope the proposal won't affect student aid but that they haven't seen anything in writing yet.
Biden outlined other elements of Obama's higher education proposals, including doubling the federal work-study program from 700,000 to 1.4 million students. The president also wants Congress to continue a $10,000 lifetime tax credit for college costs that's due to expire this year and halt a plan to double student loan interest rates from 3.4 percent to 7 percent.
Students applauded when Biden said it's not too much to ask Congress to prevent the interest rate hike.
"I tend to be a little more conservative, typically against big government policies," said Kyle Fowler, a chemical science and international affairs major from Tampa. "But if government's going to spend this is something I really feel they should spend on."
Nathan Bunch, a graduate student from Austin, Texas, working on a master's in student affairs, said Biden spoke directly to what students are facing.
"I think he understands exactly what college students need," Bunch said.
While in Tallahassee, Biden also attended a fundraiser for Obama's re-election campaign.
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