Merkley vows to help students

Sen. Jeff Merkley visited Oregon State University on Tuesday morning for a listening session on the high cost of higher education and found an audience that was all too familiar with the problem.

When he asked the two dozen or so students gathered in a classroom for the informal discussion how many expected to graduate with debt, virtually every hand shot up.

When he asked how many expected to graduate owing $25,000 or more, only a couple of those hands went down.

For far too many of today’s college students, the loan debt they racked up to finance their education “becomes a millstone around their neck,” Merkley told the group.

Lyndi Petty, an officer with OSU’s student government, said affordability is the No. 1 concern she hears about from students. It’s also an issue for her personally — she’s accumulated $30,000 worth of loans.

“Students value our education,” she told the senator, “and we are very, very concerned with the continued disinvestment we see in higher education.”

Those concerns were repeated over and over by other students, who spoke about trying to balance the need to earn a college degree in order to be successful with their fears of starting out their working lives under a crushing burden of debt.

Merkley acknowledged the seriousness of the problem and said he and fellow Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden are working on a number of initiatives aimed at making college more affordable, including:

  • Providing incentives to states to increase higher education funding.
  • Renewing a bill to maintain funding for Pell grants.
  • Supporting President Barack Obama’s plan to make community college free for low-income students.
  • Creating an income-adjusted option that would limit loan payments to no more than 10 percent of discretionary income, with the possibility of forgiving the unpaid balance after 20 years.

But he also acknowledged that he and Wyden, both Democrats, face an uphill battle to get any of those measures passed in a GOP-dominated Congress.

“There is a difference in philosophies,” Merkley said. “The philosophy I carry into this is that public education is a public benefit — not only do our children do better, but our whole economy does better. I see it as a win-win.”

Many Republican lawmakers, he said, view a college education as “a private luxury” that should be paid for by the individuals who choose to pursue it. The only way to make progress toward making college affordable, he added, is to persuade Republicans that it’s in the national interest to do so.

“We really need partners across the aisle,” he said.

Following the hourlong listening session, Merkley admitted that getting Republicans to back proposals for increasing student aid and providing student loan relief would be a tall order. But he also said the looming presidential election offers an opportunity to bring some pressure to bear on politicians from both parties.

“I believe our best hope right now is to have this become a presidential debate issue,” Merkley said. “We need to have Americans place it high enough on their list of priorities that they’re pushing their presidential candidates, on both sides of the aisle, to make that a top-tier issue.”

The OSU event was one of four listening sessions on the issue of college affordability Merkley had planned. He and Wyden made a joint appearance at the University of Oregon in Eugene on Monday and have another scheduled at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Merkley is also planning to discuss the issue with high school students in Bend.