News Q&A with Sen. Jeff Merkley on keeping Oregon education affordable

Jeff Merkley, junior senator from Oregon, sat down with the Emerald on Wednesday, October 9, to discuss issues impacting the University of Oregon and how to keep education affordable for college students.

How do you think the University of Oregon has been doing over the past year?

I run into companies all the time who have interacted with the research side of the university and have benefited from those who are graduating, bringing their skills into the community, into businesses. I’m very concerned that the sequestration process that will kick in this next year could have a huge impact on research funds across America and have a big impact on the university. That isn’t the direction we should go in this nation.

What do you think is the largest national issue facing students right now?

When I go to campuses, I often ask folks, ‘What is the main issue you’re concerned about?’ The concerns that come to the top of the list are the cost of education and global warming.

What are you doing to keep public universities affordable for Oregonians?

I’ve been immersed both in the effort to have student loans be Direct (Loans) and increasing Pell Grants. The battle this last year was to keep the interest rate at three and one half percent (only for subsidized undergraduate Stafford loans), which was successful for the moment.  If it had doubled back to seven percent, the same amount of debt would have had twice the cost.  That’s a huge problem for our students. Those are really three things — the Direct Loans, the expansion of Pell Grants and keeping the interest rate low on our Direct Loans.

It seems like whenever we get more money to subsidize our college education, tuition just goes up and tends to cancel that money out. What are you doing to keep tuition from constantly rising at public universities?

It’s a tough issue from the federal level because colleges are not regulated at a federal level; they are state institutions. But, it’s a very legitimate concern. I was the first in my family to go to college, and it was with the help of both loans and scholarship that made it possible. It was one of the best decisions I ever made to seize that moment and get an undergraduate degree.

So, many students now look at the cost and compare it to what they might earn afterwards or the resources they’d have to have up front, and they say ‘Well, I’ll wait a while’ or ‘I’ll go one semester then drop out to raise money for the next semester’ — and college becomes this protracted dance because you can’t really save much money making minimum wage, and you can’t get much more than minimum wage if you haven’t gotten some education or learned a trade along the way. You get stuck.

One of the statistics that concerns me the most is that we’re becoming the first generation of parents whose children are getting less education than we had. This high cost of college is part of that. It’s not clear, exactly, the dynamics of this because it can be so much cheaper to provide education utilizing some of our modern tools. A single person can lecture to millions if you will, so how do we leverage some of those things that could reduce the cost of education and enable us to expand educational opportunity. I think that’s a puzzle we haven’t solved yet.


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Dashiell Paulson

Dashiell Paulson