Student tuition should not be targeted as a moneymaker for the state, according to U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley.
Speaking to a full lecture hall at the William W. Knight Law Center, rife with City Club of Eugene members, the former State Speaker of the House touched on an array of political headlines, from ending filibuster tactics in Congress to digging up jobs through land development in the state.
But, being at the University of Oregon campus, Merkley inevitably touched on tuition and the bold “Pay It Forward, Pay it Back” plan that garnered national attention as it was rapidly ushered through the state legislature.
“The last thing we need to be doing,” the senator said, “is treating our students, who are struggling to get an education, as a source of additional revenues to fund other programs.”
Citing the 3.5 percent increase in tuition for Oregon’s seven public universities, and the 4.9 percent increase for UO students specifically, Merkley tackled what he considered a pattern of the state seeking income from college students.
“It’s an enormous challenge to consider the possibility that to realize the full potential of your mind you’re going to have to incur a debt the size of a home mortgage,” he said. “And make the judgment if that’s your course in life, especially if you’re not even sure there’s going to be a job on the other side.”
The Senator spoke of the “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” tuition plan that proposes students don’t pay tuition while in school, and instead donate a fraction of their income over a number of years after graduating. The idea was proposed by Portland State University students and a pilot program is getting worked out. According to Merkley, there are five states interested in copying it.
Another piece of his lecture centered on aiding the economy by suggesting more land development and infrastructure projects.
“We can do a lot more with roads and bridges and high voltage lines to transmit wind energy and a whole source of other forms of infrastructure,” he said.
The Senator engaged the mostly elderly crowd with incisive plans, peppered with jokes, and received a standing ovation at its conclusion. After a brief intermission, the Roseburg-native returned for a Q&A with the audience. The questions varied as well, touching on diverse topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict or Keystone XL pipeline.
“If we’re going to get a handle on [global warming] we have to reduce the slice in the energy pie that is fossil fuels,” Merkley said, “and within that we have to be willing to forgo the dirtiest forms [of fuel], and tar sands are one of the dirtiest forms.”
Fielding a question on marriage equality, Merkley stated he was optimistic that, with two State senators who support it, the constitution should reflect it.
“I thought I was the first individual to campaign for the senate supporting full marriage equality, and then I found out Senator [Ron] Wyden had actually talked about it when he first ran,” Merkley said. “So you have a united senate team behind full marriage of equality. I really hope of November of next year is the year we will eliminate this blight, if you will, on this form of discrimination that’s embedded in our constitution.”