Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., provided closing remarks when the Northwest Student Leadership Conference ended Feb. 23 at Portland State University.
Merkley told students that he prioritized the affordability of education, seeing a need to increase Pell Grants and to subsidize student loans to keep the cost down. Merkley believes a study he has solicited will reveal that student loans will be a source of profit for the federal government.
“This is an attack on our aspirational society,” Merkley said. “That’s completely unacceptable. If anything, the loans should be subsidized facilitating the ability of student (to attend college).”
Merkley spoke in favor of the Pay it Forward program, a system that would finance college education to students on a pledge that a percentage of what they earned after graduating would be paid back into the fund.
Merkley also spoke to students regarding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, and called the assembled students to action to oppose the implications of the ruling and demand transparency.
“When you have these vast sums, both on the lobby side and the campaign side, you substitute a vision of ‘We the People.’ You cross out people and substitute powerful,” he said.
Merkley also spoke in favor of labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms and reducing carbon pollution.
After his address, the audience was allowed to ask Merkley questions. The first was posed by Associated Students of Lane Community College Sustainability Coordinator Michael Weed, who asked the senators to
comment on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement involving several countries bordered by the Pacific Ocean.
“Here is my concern in a broad scale. When you create a trade circle that involves higher-paid, higher-enforcement, higher-environmental standards, with very low pay, very low environmental standards, very low enforcement, you can easily create a race to the bottom,” Merkley said. “I am certainly going to analyze it very closely when it comes out.”
The second and final questioned posed to Merkley came from the Associated Students of Oregon State University Director of Accessibility Affairs Bryan Williamson. Williamson works on a campaign called Raise the Blue, which advocates for student accessibility to colleges.
“Anything that you can possibly think of — accessibility is really something that can affect everybody. Able-bodied people, parents, students like you and I — even you, Sen. Merkley,” Williamson said.
Williamson asked the senator to take the Raise the Blue pledge to address these issues, but Merkley declined.
“Because I am not familiar (with the campaign), I will not stand up and take a pledge,” Merkley said. “It sounds tremendous and thank you for raising (awareness). I think it fits right in with my argument for the maximum opportunity for every American.”