U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley asked Clatsop Community College’s Class of 2014 Friday to stand up if they were first-generation college students. Promptly, more than half of those graduating were out of their seats.
Merkley, a first-generation university student and now a senator facing re-election in five months, promised to fight for community colleges during his commencement address.
“You have taken an enormous stride toward seizing the American Dream,” said Merkley, adding that getting an education opens people to the ability to raise families, support the economy with their improved incomes and participate in civic life.
Clatsop President Lawrence Galizio worked with Merkley when the two were both state representatives in the Oregon Legislature. Clatsop’s was the first graduation Merkley has addressed.
Merkley, the son of a millwright, was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from Stanford University, and later Princeton. His wife attended community college to become a nurse.
“When an individual succeeds, their family is stronger,” said Merkley. “When individuals make progress, our community is stronger. And when individuals thrive in our economy, our entire economy is stronger.
“That’s why, as a nation, we have to make sure the path to individual success is a wide and well-paved path. And we cannot allow the cost of college to become so high that college is simply a luxury for the well-off.”
The nation, said Merkley, needs to invest more in education, focus on community colleges and lessen the inflation of tuition, which he added has been growing faster than any other part of the economy.
The federal Pell Grant program needs to be strengthened, he said, and interest rates on student loans need to be controlled.
Merkley teamed up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., recently to introduce the Bank on Students Emergency Loans Refinancing Act, which would have allowed an estimated 40 million college students with more than $1 trillion in loans to refinance them at a lower rate, similar to what’s done with a mortgage.
The bill, which had the support of 58 senators in debate, died on the vine earlier this month after Republicans in the Senate filibustered, preventing the bill from reaching the Senate floor. The vote to advance the bill was 58-36 in favor, two votes shy of the three-quarters majority to overcome a filibuster.
“Filibuster is a Dutch word for piracy,” said Merkley, “and piracy in the U.S. Senate is alive and well right now.
“Just as you have worked hard to overcome obstacles, I pledge to you I’m going to keep working in partnership with students across America, with former students, with parents who are financing college, to fight for affordable higher education for working families in the United States.”