In Bend, Merkley calls Pell cuts ‘diabolical’

Families abroad can expect to pay about 5 percent of their income toward the cost of college. But in this country, that number can be 50 percent, said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.

“This is a financial gauntlet and it’s very, very different from that of … most other developed nations,” Merkley told students and OSU-Cascades administrators at a forum on college affordability Thursday in Bend.

Merkley was touring the state this week talking about the budget blueprint recently passed in the Senate, which he voted against. He said it would fail college students by cutting $90 million in Pell Grant funding over the next decade, a 31 percent decrease that Merkley called “diabolical” in the face of rising tuition.

Pell Grants are federal grants for low- and moderate-income undergraduates. Unlike student loans, Pell Grants do not have to be repaid. The Senate budget would freeze the maximum Pell Grant amount at $5,775 for 10 years.

Before the recession, about a third of OSU-Cascades students had Pell Grants. Now, more than 50 percent do. Last month, OSU trustees approved a weighted tuition increase of 7.6 percent for in-state students at OSU-Cascades next school year.

Along with more Pell Grant funding to keep up with tuition increases, Merkley called for lower interest rates on federal student loans and, where possible, freezing tuition at public colleges and universities.

Those measures would have “a tremendous effect” on controlling college costs, he said.

OSU-Cascades students told Merkley Pell Grants and other forms of aid helped limit the amount of loans they had to take out, but it’s still not easy paying for college.

Beverly Schlegel, 24, wants to be a teacher, but the stress of paying for college — first at a community college, then at University of Oregon and now OSU-Cascades — interrupted her plan. She juggled multiple jobs and took on tens of thousands of dollars in loans.

“I dropped out of school several times in the process of earning my degree,” Schlegel told Merkley.

Now she is working just one job, but she has had to take out more loans. She hoped to graduate with less than $20,000 in debt but guesses she will have about $30,000.

Next year, she said, for the first time she will get a Pell Grant. She cried when she found out.