Senators Wyden and Merkley on Student Debt

By Senator(D) Ron Wyden, Senator (D) Jeff Merkley, Guest Opinion

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The Siskiyou was asked to publish this letter from the offices of Senator Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. While we might normally refuse, we felt the issue of student debt is so pressing we would allow this platform. We would also allow a differing view should it be presented. The senators wanted a direct avenue to speak to students on campus through this appeal. It runs as an Opinion/Editorial contributed by their offices and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the staff and editorial team of The Siskiyou.

Last month, on campuses across Oregon, students told us that college debt is suffocating opportunity. It’s preventing a move, a job, a car or a house. Debt is stifling ideas for the future before they have a chance to grow. Those students implored us to find real solutions to cut tuition costs and prevent the crushing debt that follows too many college graduates for decades.

In Oregon, the average student graduating with debt owes more than $25,000, and that number only keeps climbing. Nationally, with out-of-pocket tuition costs continuing to fly past inflation – by nearly 24 percent from 1999 to 2011 – students and their families face the brunt of this burden with no end in sight.

The key driver of tuition increases and skyrocketing debt levels is states dramatically cutting their share of funding for public higher education. In fact, researchers at Demos, a policy research organization, found that declining state support was responsible for nearly 80 percent of the rise in tuition costs between 2001 and 2011.

That has certainly been the case in Oregon, where the state’s contribution to the per-student cost of public college has fallen from $5,587 in 2009 to $4,214 in 2014 – a decline of almost 25% in just five years. In the last state legislative session, the state increased higher education funding by almost 20 percent, which is great progress. However, Oregon ranked 45th in the nation in per-student support for public higher education in 2014.

That’s why we introduced legislation to encourage states to put in a bigger share and reinvest their dollars into public colleges and universities. Our bill, the PARTNERSHIPS Act, would provide federal matching funds for states that agree to freeze or reduce the cost of tuition and bring up graduation rates. The bill signals to states and colleges that the federal government wants to be a partner in making college more affordable.

The partnership would work like this: The federal government would send dollars to states if states use those dollars to stop tuition costs from going up, or, better yet, if they use those dollars to bring down tuition costs at public colleges. Under our bill, a school could get up to $1,700 per student each year from the federal government if it meets those conditions.

Even as we work to stop tuition from climbing higher, we know costs are already so high that many feel college is out of reach. So another key piece of the puzzle is ensuring that all kids – starting in junior high and high school – know that they will have the ability to repay their loans.

In August, we introduced the AFFORD Act, which would give all borrowers that peace of mind. Our bill would make student debt more manageable by ensuring no borrower has to pay more than ten percent of his or her discretionary income on student loan payments. Any unpaid balance after 20 years would be forgiven. Everybody, from baristas to bankers, would be able to afford their student loan payments.

In our country, a higher education is often the ticket to a good-paying job. Making college affordable is not only critical to the future of students, it’s vital for our state. It’s the surest way to grow our economy and the incomes of ordinary Oregonians. We must keep higher education – a central pathway to the middle class – open to all.

Bringing down college costs is going to take effort from students, states and the federal government. But Oregonians have never been afraid of hard work. Our students’ future and our state’s require that we meet this challenge. Working in partnership, we can keep the doors to opportunity open to all Oregonians.

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