"It's never, ever, ever been a good bet to bet against America," Biden said. "You're the most competent, capable, caring generation this country has ever produced."
His speech at Penn's commencement ceremony came after a few lighthearted comments about the cost of higher education. Biden's daughter and one of his sons are alumni of the Ivy League school, and his granddaughter just finished her freshman year there.
His wide-ranging remarks sounded like a campaign speech at times, touting the progress of gay marriage, dismissing skeptics of climate change and the rise of China, and expressing support for immigration reform.
But his main message to graduates was that they should have faith in their abilities.
"Today, for all the uncertainty you may feel, the future is in your control," Biden said. "Don't listen to the cynics."
Biden also received an honorary degree at the ceremony. In citing the vice president for his decades of public service, Penn President Amy Gutmann told Biden he was "admired everywhere for your deep compassion, your willingness to listen, and your devotion to the American people."
Gutmann called on the approximately 5,000 graduates to share a "citizenship of service," saying that "at the end of the day, it won't be what you take, but what you give."
She cited a line from a commencement speech given two years ago by actor Denzel Washington: "Of every funeral procession ... you've ever seen, how many times has the hearse been pulling a U-Haul?" she quoted.
The acknowledgement drew huge cheers from the crowd at Franklin Field, as giant video monitors then showed Washington in the audience. He and other family members came to the ceremony Monday to see his son Malcolm graduate with a degree in film studies.
The university conferred seven other honorary degrees at the event, including to Xerox Corp. CEO Ursula Burns, the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.
Penn had planned to give an honorary degree to Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile. But a university spokeswoman said Bachelet notified Penn several weeks ago that she would not be able to attend. Bachelet is running for president again.