By MICHAEL J. MISHAK
MIAMI -- Addressing what he calls a "growing opportunity gap" between people with and without advanced educations, Sen. Marco Rubio is calling for state-accredited alternatives to four-year colleges and income-based repayments for college loans.
The Florida senator and possible 2016 Republican presidential contender also said Congress should establish an independent accrediting agency to assess free courses offered over the Internet and elsewhere as transferable credits.
"Those with the right advanced education are making more than ever. But those that do not are falling farther and farther behind," Rubio said in remarks prepared for an education forum today at Miami Dade College. "The result is a growing opportunity gap between haves and have-nots, those who have advanced education and those who do not."
College students, he added, also should be offered cost-benefit analyses comparing how much they can expect to earn in a particular field to how much they will owe after earning a degree in the subject.
"You have this new economic era, where higher education of some form is really a requirement to make it to the middle class and stabilize yourself," Rubio said in an interview with the Associated Press before the conference sponsored by the National Journal. "But we have an old and stagnant education formula that doesn't meet the demand that is being created."
Rubio's education initiative comes as Republicans are aiming to offer an alternative to President Barack Obama's agenda and shed the baggage of Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid and Romney's suggestion 47 percent of Americans view themselves as victims who won't take responsibility for themselves. Last month, Rubio proposed ideas for retooling federal anti-poverty programs, arguing that states could run them better.
"I want to add more options to the menu. And the more options we have, the more affordable it will be and the more people we're going to be able to empower," he told the AP.
At the heart of Rubio's education plan is a proposal to offer alternatives to a four-year college degree by recognizing free online courses -- evaluated and overseen by an independent accrediting board -- that would be transferable to traditional schools and eligible for federal aid. Workers also could use their skills to earn certifications or degrees outside traditional institutions by passing new standardized tests.
Americans, Rubio said, are being priced out of college educations.
The price tag for tuition and fees at public four-year colleges is up 27 percent beyond overall inflation during the last five years, according to the latest figures from the College Board.
The average annual cost for a full-time student at a four-year public college now is $18,390, including room, board and tuition. Subtract grants and tax benefits, and it drops to $12,620. At private four-year colleges, the average bill totals just more than $40,000 each year, with the average student paying $23,290.
More than 70 percent of the national college class of 2012 had loan debt at graduation, and their debt averaged $29,400, according to the most recent figures from the California-based Institute for College Access and Success.
Rubio, who often notes he still owed more than $100,000 in student loans when he became a senator in 2011, is calling for "student investment plans." Private investment firms would cover tuition costs that could be repaid later as a fixed percentage of a graduate's income for a set number of years, regardless of whether that amount covers the total debt.