LOS ANGELES — Vice President Joe Biden on Friday pushed the president's proposal to make two years of community college free, saying the move would help ensure the rebound of the middle class and maintain U.S. standing in the world economy.
"The rest of the world is catching up," Biden said. "We have to stay ahead of the curve."
Biden's visit came three days after President Barack Obama called on Congress in his State of the Union speech to make two years of college "as free and universal in America as high school is today."
The proposal would benefit an estimated 9 million students each year and cost taxpayers a projected $60 billion over 10 years.
The Republican-controlled Congress is likely to be hesitant to embrace such a high-cost idea. States would have to contribute a quarter of the cost, and it's unclear how many would support such a program.
California education leaders who appeared with Biden on Friday pledged to help gather support for the plan.
Yet West Los Angeles College president Nabil Abu-Ghazaleh noted that the cost of childcare, housing and transportation — not the relatively low cost of community college tuition — are keeping many students out of higher education classes.
"Our challenge is the cost of living in California," Abu-Ghazaleh said.
He said only one-third of the students at his college attend full-time, and that having to work and go to school part-time is the greatest contributor to non-completion.
West Los Angeles College is one of 15 California community colleges that received approval Tuesday to start offering career-oriented bachelor's degrees.
The go-ahead was given by the board that oversees California's vast community college system.
Biden noted that while the economy has improved, many in the middle class are still struggling. He also highlighted statistics showing that a majority of current and future job opening require higher education.
"Twelve years is not enough in 2015," he said about a high school education.
During his visit, Biden met with students in the school's dental hygiene program who will be part of the bachelor's degree expansion.
The White House plan for free community college classes would require students to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA. In addition, schools would need to offer programs with credits that can be transferred to four-year colleges and universities, or offer in-demand, career-oriented training with high graduation rates.
Educators are somewhat divided over the proposal. Opponents note that it could benefit some students who can already afford to pay for college while perhaps not providing all the aid needed for the poorest students. Supporters say it will expand the number of students going to school.
Similar programs are in place in Tennessee and Chicago.
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario