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Biden's push for free community college tuition gets lukewarm response

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a roundtable discussion held at West Los Angeles College in Culver City, California.
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a roundtable discussion held at West Los Angeles College in Culver City, California.
AP/Jae C. Hong

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Vice President Joe Biden visited West Los Angeles College Friday to stump for the Obama administration's free community college tuition proposal, but some of the feedback he got suggests the idea may be missing its mark in California.

Biden sat down with students, college administrators, and elected officials to promote the idea of expanding college access by offering two years' tuition to qualified students.

He said 12 years of education isn’t enough for students to get a good job, or to improve the country's competitiveness. "Any country that out educates us will out compete us," he said. 

But Stephanie Jara, who is studying to become a dental hygienist, was skeptical that the tuition proposal would have broad impact.

"Some people will benefit from it," she said. "I’m not sure that everybody needs it, but I think for the people who can’t afford it, the people who live day-by-day that, you know, have minimum wage jobs — it’s going to help those people."

Average in-state tuition and fees for two-year public colleges in California amounted to $1,429 in 2014-2015, according to The College Board's annual college survey. Tuition is affordable, Jara says, but it is rent that isn’t.

West Los Angeles College President Nabil Abu-Ghazaleh made a similar point. 

"Our challenge is not tuition," he told Biden. "Our challenge is the cost of living in California, the challenge of having to work and go to college part-time, which is the greatest contributor to the non-completion."

Biden responded that he and President Obama know people are struggling to make ends meet.

"That’s why we proposed in this year’s budget, a $3,000 tax credit for child care. That’s why we proposed that we [have] a loan payback. You never have to pay back more than 10 percent of your disposable income on any loans you acquire," he said.

The vice president didn’t answer the question many community college administrators asked: where’s the money going to come from to pay for free tuition?

Obama has proposed sharing the cost of the free tuition program with the states that opt-in. But Gov. Jerry Brown said his budget plan is "precariously balanced" with few new programs and more resources going to cover growing, mandatory costs.

At least one college educator, Scott Svonkin, president of the Los Angeles Community College board of trustees, supports the free tuition plan despite the unanswered questions.

"That we’re the engine that will drive the country’s economy in the future is something that hopefully the Congress will see fit to support," Svonkin said.

Republicans, who hold majorities in both houses of Congress, have come out in opposition to the free tuition plan and more government spending.