Democratic senator promotes his proposals

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley spent Thursday on college campuses discussing the cost of higher education, including talking with students at Chemeketa Community College in Salem.Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley toured several Oregon campuses to hear students talk about the high cost of college — and to promote his proposals to help them.

“The stories vary a great deal,” Merkley said Thursday after meeting about 30 students at Chemeketa Community College in Salem.

“But what they have in common is that the process of going to college has become a financial gauntlet, with students stressing over each moment. This (higher education) is critical to the path of opportunity for every child to be able to thrive in America.”

He ended his five-city tour with a rally at Portland State University. Other stops were at the University of Oregon and the Oregon State University campuses in Corvallis and Bend.

He did not mention his Republican opponent, Monica Wehby, who he is leading in independent polls.

Together with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Merkley is promoting a bill to allow students to refinance college loans taken out before 2010, when the federal government ended subsidized loans by banks and assumed responsibility.

He says it will benefit about 500,000 current and former students in Oregon.

That bill stalled in the Senate after Republicans objected to financing it through a minimum tax on millionaires.

The senators also seek to tie the interest rate on new federal student loans, Merkley says, “at the same low interest rate that big banks get when they borrow from the Federal Reserve.” A 2013 compromise now ties the rate to that paid on 10-year Treasury notes.

Later, in an appearance with Arizona Sen. John McCain in Salem, Wehby said she too favored the affordability of college loans. But she assailed Merkley for voting for the 2010 federal takeover of loans, which ended bank subsidies that came with higher interest rates.

“But I think the biggest problem with loans is that there are no jobs at the end when they get out,” she said without elaboration.

Among Merkley’s other proposals are greater support for community colleges, more college credits for high school work such as Advanced Placement classes and tests, and increased basic federal student grants — known as Pell Grants — that keep up with college costs.

Student stories

Merkley did hear a new wrinkle from Eric Duvall-Winsher, who complained about the high cost of college textbooks. He says because some texts contain a computer-access code to additional instructional material that can be activated only once, the books cannot be purchased used at a lower cost.

Merkley also heard individual stories from half a dozen Chemeketa students, including two who aspire to become teachers.

Tamara Phillips says she had to drop out of Western Oregon University after a year and a half because she could not afford to continue, but still wound up $8,000 in debt. She says she hopes that when she becomes a teacher, she can enable her younger brother to attend college, because her mother cannot afford to support either.

“Government aid makes a difference,” she says. “Without government aid, we can’t leave” a cycle of low-wage jobs.

Jonathan Kiser says he wants to follow in the footsteps of both his parents as teachers.

Without teachers, he says, “I think we’re not going to end up with an America where people are inspired.”

Both said afterward they liked what Merkley had to say.

“He’s one of the few people who is pushing not only for continuing our aid, but helping us get more and trying to open up more scholarships,” Phillips says. She favors a Merkley proposal for partial forgiveness of student loans for teachers who agree to go to understaffed schools.

“I’m excited about some of the things he brought up,” Kiser says, including a proposal for grants that would be repaid over 20 years based on a student’s future income. Oregon state lawmakers will be asked to consider a pilot project, known as “pay it forward,” next year.

Merkley says this issue is personal for him, because he was the first in his family to go to college. His father was a millwright and mechanic.

“I benefited from parents who, although they hadn’t gone to college, said this is achievable and it will be significant in your life,” he says.

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