Senators Wyden, Merkley talk college options to high schoolers worrying how to afford it

Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley visited Franklin High School Friday to talk about their plans to help students like senior Michelle Yan.

Yan wants to attend Stony Brook University in New York to become the first in her family with a college degree. But she worries about the out-of-state costs.

“Definitely. I feel if I have to take a whole bunch of loans, I wouldn’t do that because it would catch up with me,” Yan said, adding that she would probably stay in-state if it looks like her first choice is too expensive.

Senior Kenton Rush said college affordability has already affected his path of higher education.

“Very much so, yes,” Rush said. “I’m going to be going to (Portland Community College) and doing the two-year-degree-transferring-to-a-four-year degree, simply because it’s too much money to go to a four-year university.”

Yan and Rush are part of Franklin’s AP Government class, which welcomed Oregon’s U.S. senators for a discussion on college affordability.

Wyden told the kids that it didn’t use to be like this when he went off to college on a modest basketball scholarship in the late-1960s.

“College then was expensive, but it wasn’t something that basically colored your life for decades and decades to come,” Wyden said. “And that, of course, is what has happened in the last decade. Students and families just feel like they’ve been hit with a wrecking ball when it comes to college.”

Wyden and Merkley have been talking to students around the state on the issue of college affordability for a while as it is one of their top legislative priorities.

Merkley introduced the AFFORD Act last August that would give students the option to tie loan payments to 10 percent of their discretionary income.

The junior senator said the fear of crushing debt has had a chilling effect on low-income high school students who decide not to pursue a degree before they have even begun. He counseled the high schoolers to take advantage of college credit courses in high school and community college partnerships, calling four-year university costs “off the charts.”

A student with a 10-month-old baby stood up to ask the senators what options she would have to go to college on a non-standard diploma.

“The reality is there really isn’t the traditional route anymore,” Wyden said, noting his desire to support student like her by boosting funding for childcare programs. “We can have all kinds of speeches about how government is going to get on your side, but when it comes right down to it, these are the questions that determine whether you’re going to be able to juggle it all.”

Merkley agreed, saying that he frequently urges college presidents to have an IKEA-like childcare option for drop-in daycare.

Wyden noted that he is reaching across the aisle to co-sponsor a bill with presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) to improve transparency in the costs and outcomes of higher education.

“Progressives and conservatives said it’s time for people to no longer be in the dark about how much college is going to cost,” Wyden said of the Students Right to Know Before You Go Act, introduced last May.

Merkley tied the fight for affordable college to the influence of big money in today’s Congress.

“This is a great example,” Merkley said. “If we truly had an equal voice for citizens, we would have already fixed this.”

Three ways senators say they are helping families afford college:

1. American Opportunity tax credit

This tax credit — made permanent at the end of 2015 — gives families the ability to claim up to $10,000 in tax credit for college expenses. However, the New America foundation reported in December that the tax credit isn’t helping families as much as originally thought, in part because many college students don’t file income taxes.


A Wyden-Merkley bill in committee that would create annual block grants to states that boost their funding of higher education. These federal matching funds aims to incentivize states to voluntarily reverse their trend of disinvestment of higher education, something Oregon university presidentshave been complaining loudly about.

3. Student Right to Know Before You Go Act

Wyden worked with Republican presidential candidate and Sen. Marco Rubio on this bill that would add additional reporting requirements to institutes of higher education. The data on things like graduation rates and average loan amounts at graduation would presumably then be available for prospective students to compare costs and outcomes.