Merkley Joins Oregon college presidents in announcing legislation to end student debt crisis

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley today joined Oregon Institute of Technology President Nagi Naganathan and Klamath Community College President Roberto Gutierrez in pushing for the Debt-Free College Act, legislation that will reverse the growing student debt crisis in Oregon and across the United States. The bill creates a path for students to be able to attend public colleges without taking on debt.

“I was the first in my family to go to college, so I know firsthand how important the opportunity to pursue higher education is to the American Dream. But right now, crushing debt is putting that dream in jeopardy for far too many American students,” Senator Merkley said. “In the wealthiest nation on earth, our students shouldn’t have to mortgage their future just to get a college degree. It’s time to put the ‘public’ back in public education and ensure that every student who wants to can pursue higher education debt-free.”

“The growing student loan debt issue is one that we do need to tackle in Oregon and nationally,” said Oregon Tech president Nagi Naganathan. “Debt has become a significant factor in students’ college-going decisions, especially for our most underserved populations. We applaud Senator Merkley and other sponsors of this bill for working towards a state/federal partnership solution that can reduce borrowing and its impacts on young Americans.”

“Allowing students to attend community college without taking on debt will strengthen our nation’s open open-access college model and ensure that our local economy remains strong with a well-trained and educated workforce,” said KCC president Dr. Roberto Gutierrez. “Twenty percent of Klamath County residents live at or below poverty level, and taking on debt to attend college is not a viable option for them. Financial barriers to education must be removed if we want to support all factions of our communities. Too much is at stake to not support this bill.”

If signed into law, the Debt-Free College Act would establish a state-federal partnership that provides a dollar-for-dollar federal match to state higher education appropriations in exchange for a commitment to help students pay for the full cost of attendance without having to take on debt.

Beyond tuition and fees, the total cost of attendance—room and board, books and supplies, and other expenses—has forced 44 million Americans to take on debt to cover their financial need. More than half of Oregon residents who attend Oregon Tech and Klamath Community College rely on borrowing. College debt has increased 170 percent since 2006 and now exceeds $1.4 trillion dollars, which is second only to mortgage debt and surpasses even credit card debt.

In Oregon, 63 percent of students in the class of 2015 graduated with debt, averaging $27,697 per borrower. A 2014 analysis by The Oregonian found that over a ten-year period, Oregon students and their families borrowed more than $12 billion—more than double the amount from a decade earlier.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loan debt is responsible for 35 percent of the decline in homeownership since 2007. The percentage of younger people who reported owning a business was cut in half between 2010 and 2013. Pew Research Center found that about 50 percent of student borrowers say their loans increase their risk of defaulting on other bills.

The bill is co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and by U.S. Representatives Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Rick Nolan (D-Minn.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

The bill is also endorsed by the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Demos, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Young Invincibles, Credo Action, Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), UnidosUS, and California State Treasurer John Chiang.