In Missouri, Biden says he wants more affordable higher education

ST. LOUIS | Vice President Joe Biden pledged Friday to close gaps between family incomes and college costs to make higher education a reality for more Americans.

Biden told a town hall-style meeting in St. Louis that he'll ask the Treasury Department to look into how to make family college-savings plans more effective and reliable. Many families save for college in tax-deferred plans known as 529s, and Biden said the government will consider options such as low-interest loans against those plans to help families pay for school.

"We're going to make a series of investments, investments in our families and our students," he said, noting the Obama administration's efforts to improve tax breaks for families and increase need-based grants for the middle class and poor.

Some 300 people attended the meeting at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where Biden was joined by fellow Democrats Jay Nixon, the governor, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, as well as Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Biden hosted the meeting as part of the work of the Middle Class Task Force that he heads at President Barack Obama's behest.

To make college more affordable, the administration is seeking to extend its American Opportunity Tax Credit beyond 2010. The credit can be claimed for four years of college, running up to a maximum of $2,500 a year. It already has worked to increase funding for the Pell Grant program, which provides need-based assistance, but wants a system in place so money would automatically go to the program every year.

Biden said work should be done to consolidate student loan programs, to cut out private student lenders who currently act as middlemen on many federal student loans. He said that could save $94 billion over a decade. "We can take the $94 billion and reinvest it in more loans, more grants and more access to college," he said.

Biden told a group of students from the Imagine Academy of Careers Middle School that if they continue to get good grades, the government will continue work to help them pay for college. The charter school is in north St. Louis where many families struggle to make ends meet.

Duncan suggested middle schoolers be taken to visit college campuses. "It's hard to dream about what you can't see," he said.