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Vice President Biden speaks at UMSL, proposes more direct loans to students

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 17, 2009 - Vice President Joe Biden's whirlwind tour of Missouri continuesdthis morning at the  University of Missouri St. Louis with a forum on making college education more affordable.

Jill Biden delivered the opening  remarks, with the vice president standing by her side. 

Jill Biden said that when families experience job losses, "college is the first thing to go." She cited the students, parents and faculty in the audience and said, "We are here for all of you."

Joe Biden began by giving a quick summary of his Missouri trip, beginning with his visit with troops at Whiteman Air Force Base. He talked of joining Gov. Jay Nixon in Jefferson City to look at the proposed wind energy development.

Then he launched into his concerns about the pressures on higher education. "College is getting harder and harder to afford,'' Biden said.

At the same time, he added, education "is the key to every other aspect of our national life." 

Biden recounted the worsening statistics for American students. The United States is now 7th in the world in the percentage of students age 18-24 going to college, and 15th in the awarding of degrees, he said.

It makes no economic sense for Americans, he continued, since the average college graduate earns 77 percent more than a high school graduate. And although the nation's unemployment rate is approaching 9 percent, he said the rate is less than half that for college graduates.

But the financial pressure is great, Biden added, noting that college tuition, board and fees now approach $50,000 a year -- or more -- at many private institutions.

"You don't get to borrow that much money," Biden said, his voice emphasizing his concern. He noted that his own adult sons are still paying the debt from their college educations.

For many families, Biden said, the economic downturn was a real threat to their college plans because many families had planned on using the equity in their homes to help bankroll their children's education. With the burst of the housing bubble, that's far less possible.

As a result, the administration is "going to make some changes," Biden said.

Among them: more direct loans to potential students, via their colleges or universities. Biden said that $94 billion will bypass lenders and go from the government to the students, with the college institutions handling the applications. 

Members of the audience were then invited to ask questions. And Paul Speck, a professor of business at UMSL, offered a probing one.

One of the problems, Speck said, is that much of the nation's higher education is geared at new workers -- and not enough at older workers in need of new skills and knowledge. "Yes, they need help sending Johnny to school," said Speck. "But they also need help sending Johnny's mom to school."

Speck drew some chuckles when he added, "You could call the program, 'No Worker Left Behind.' "  

Biden said the administration's interest in what average people think is a key reason the forums are being held around the country. "We're not having these meetings in Washington, D.C."

Biden also aired his beef about the federal Pell Grants, which could provide low-income families up to $5,500 a year in college help. He said too few families are told about them "until it is too late" for them to apply to college.

But the most moving moment came when the vice president turned his back to the audience to address young students seated behind him, who attend the Clyde C. Miller Charter School and the Imagine Academy of Careers middle school. Both charter schools are in the city of St. Louis.

"If you get good grades ... you will be able to go to college," Biden said with passion, standing just a few feet from the children. The administration "will make that happen," he said.

As an aside, Biden also observed to the students, all of whom were African-American: "By the way, any of you can be president ... Everybody got that now? It can be done."

Biden was referring, of course, to President Barack Obama, who is biracial and considered the nation's first African-American president.

Biden and UMSL head Tom George both lauded community colleges as a great way for students to get the first two years of their college education at an affordable price.

Biden suggested that route as potentially the best one for Madolyn Okohson-Reb, 49, and from Overland. She told Biden she earned only $17,000 a year and had just seen her job hours cut. Plus, she has two children in college -- one at Purdue and another at Texas A & M -- and two younger children, 13 and 16.

George said that 75 percent of UMSL's first-time students "transfer from these excellent community colleges" for the rest of their college education.

Before ending the forum, Biden briefly brought up his hope to set up some sort of education program with countries in Central and South America, where poverty reigns. "I don't want to build a fence," the vice president said referring to the issue of border security, especially along the United States' southern boundaries. "I want to build an economy in Mexico" and elsewhere.

Earlier, Biden also addressed the possibility of forgiving some college loans if a student goes into public service, such as Teach for America or the Peace Corps. There is some discussion within the administration about coming up with ways to reward those who go into such programs, or become teachers or enter some other public-service profession.

He joked that his own three adult children -- two sons and a daughter -- are all highly educated and have all chosen professions that serve the public, but don't provide huge salaries. His eldest, Joseph Robinette "Beau" Biden III, is Delaware's attorney general (and now serving in Iraq as a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard). The second, Robert Hunter Biden, was a founding partner of Oldaker, Biden & Belair, LLP, and is on the board for Amtrak.

Biden's daughter Ashley is a social worker.

"We wanted someone to make some money," Biden said with chuckle, explaining that none is a millionaire -- and neither is he or his wife. "So when I'm put into a home, I'll have a room with a view."

Friday's forum was the third such event hosted by the White House's Middle Class Task Force, which is chaired by Vice President Joe Biden. The earlier two forums have focused on other topics.

According to a pre-forum statement put out by the White House, the focus of Friday's session "is to discuss ways to expand opportunities and help make the dream of a college education a reality for more families."

Among other things, Biden was to announce today that he has asked the Treasury and Education Departments to study ways to make tax-deferred saving plans, called "529 Plans," more reliable. The 529 Plans are reliant on the stock market and other investments, and many families' investments in such plans have taken a hit in recent months.

A crowd of about 300 was in the audience at the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Student Millenium Center to hear the forum's remarks. The audience included some public officials -- including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley -- some students and faculty, charter-school students, representatives from other area universities, notably Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, and others who had been lucky enough to snag one of the free tickets distributed earlier in the week.

Joining the vice president was his wife, Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate and has been involved in education for 28 years; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; and Cecilia Rouse of the administration's Council on Education Advisors and, according to the administration, considered "a leading expert on the economic impact of education, especially the impact of community colleges."

The forum reflects, the administration said in a statement, President Barack Obama's "goal that by 2020, Americans should once again lead the world in the proportion of adults with a college degree."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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