Vice President Joe Biden, announcing on Wednesday that he will not enter the 2016 presidential race, called for a national commitment to free public higher education that goes beyond what the Obama administration has proposed.
“While I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent,” Biden said, promising to speak out on a range of issues, including access to education.
Biden suggested that it was time to go further than President Obama’s plan for tuition-free community college, which the administration has framed as an expansion of universal public education beyond high school.
“We're fighting for 14 years -- we need to commit to 16 years of free public education for all our children,” he said. “We know that 12 years of public education is not enough. As a nation, let's make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education a hundred years ago."
This is a new position for Biden, who has been a key part of the administration’s efforts over the last year to promote Obama’s community college proposal.
Biden’s remarks on Wednesday about four years of free public higher education more closely echo the higher education plans of the Democratic presidential candidates than how the Obama administration has been approaching the debt-free college.
Since Obama unveiled his free community college plan in January -- alongside Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, a community college professor -- many Democrats have made a range of more ambitious proposals that involve new federal spending to lower or eliminate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities.
Even as liberal groups successfully pushed the idea of debt-free college onto the Democratic agenda during this election cycle, President Obama and his administration have been considerably less enthusiastic about the idea.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in July that while he supports creating some paths to a debt-free bachelor’s degree at public institutions, he wants to see a greater focus on boosting college graduation rates and making sure colleges prepare students for success in their careers.
Asked about free college at a town hall meeting in Iowa last month, President Obama said his main focus was on his free community college plan.
“It is absolutely realistic for us, to first of all, have the first two years of community college free, because it’s in my budget and I know how to pay for it,” Obama said, adding that “if we can get that done, then I think we can start building from there.”
Biden’s comments on Wednesday lend support for the range of free college plans offered by the Democratic presidential hopefuls who might have thought they would face him as a opponent.
It’s not clear, however, whether he was endorsing a specific plan.
Hillary Clinton has proposed making tuition free at public colleges and universities for all students who are unable to afford it, though she hasn't said what that threshold would be. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has called for tuition-free public higher education across the board, a difference over which the two candidates have sparred.