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My View: Making college affordable will benefit the economy, our future

A few weeks ago, I stopped by Portland State University to talk with students about the cost of a college education and the debt that is weighing down our students. I walked in to find a room full of students holding yellow balloons with numbers on them that depict the amount of student debt they are expecting to have upon graduation.

The numbers written on those balloons, anywhere from $18,000 to $90,000, were staggering — and a clear demonstration that the price of higher education is much too high.

Our college students face higher costs and greater debt at the same time that it is more imperative to get a good education to succeed in the work force. In Oregon today, the average debt upon college graduation is more than $24,000, with many students in debt $50,000 to $100,000.

Making college affordable is one of the best investments we can make to grow our economy. We should do everything we can to make America a magnet for jobs, ensure our workers have the skills they need to compete, and help Americans get ahead.

If we are to succeed in the 21st century, we need to ensure that our kids can afford the best education possible. But Congress is failing to tackle this issue. A vote to keep student loan rates at 3.4 percent, rather than letting rates double to 6.8 percent on July 1, was defeated by a minority filibuster. This increase will impact every Oregon student securing a new Stafford loan. This is unacceptable.

No one should believe that keeping student loan rates low is unaffordable. The U.S. government will make a profit of more than $50 billion on student loans this coming year. Running up big profits at the expense of our students is just wrong.

Moreover, affordable financing is an issue of setting national priorities. We are spending $120 billion this year in Afghanistan. We must end that war. And as we do, we should invest a big share of those resources in education. Indeed, we should pass the Bank on Student Loans Fairness Act that would give students the same rock-bottom interest rates big banks get from the Fed. The biggest banks in the country pay less than 1 percent on funds they borrow from the government. Why should our students pay nine times as much?

Higher education is the surest path to middle-class success and economic opportunity. The last thing we should do at a time when Americans owe more on student loans than credit cards is to make student loans more expensive. That’s why I’ll continue fighting to pass the Bank on Student Loans Fairness Act, and help reduce the numbers on those yellow balloons.

Our students deserve the opportunity to get the best education in the world without ending up with debt the size of a home mortgage.

It’s clear from my recent visit with those Portland State students that we’ve got a lot of talent here in Oregon. Let’s make sure our talented students can afford a college education to realize their dreams and potential and help build the future economy.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Portland Democrat, was elected in 2008 and is originally from Myrtle Creek.

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