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Public Statements

Stop the Student Loan Interest Rate Hike Act of 2012--Motion to Proceed--Continued

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. MERKLEY. Madam President, I rise to address the motion to proceed we are currently debating. Essentially, this is a motion to proceed to a bill that would sustain the 3.4-percent interest rate on Stafford student loans.

Earlier, we had a vote to attempt to conclude the debate over whether we should get to the bill. That has to have a supermajority of 60 under the rules of the Senate and we didn't have that supermajority. My colleagues across the aisle voted against debating whether to sustain the 3.4 percent on student loans or, to put it differently, they voted to block this effort and preserve the 6.8 percent as the rate we will go to shortly if we don't address this legislation.

I certainly think students at every institution in Oregon would be appalled the Senate isn't willing to hold a debate over the doubling of the cost of student loans. This has a tremendously powerful impact on the affordability of education across America. We are at a point in the history of the world where our nations are interconnected. We have a global knowledge economy. The nations that prepare their children well not only will have the best future for those individual children, but they will have the best economy down the road.

What is the impact of doubling the cost of student loans? Certainly, for many students it means they will not complete their education. They are facing diminished job prospects, they are facing expensive tuition, and there are only so many part-time jobs they can take while still attempting to complete their coursework. At some point they will say the burden is too heavy--the debt burden is too heavy--the hurdles are too high. Then we all lose. Our children will lose the opportunity to fulfill their potential to pursue their dreams and our economy loses because we are not the best prepared around the world.

Indeed, today, across America we are becoming the first generation of parents whose children are getting less education than we got. I would like to see that debated on the floor of the Senate. I would like to hear a Senator stand and say they are proud of the fact that America is failing its children. I would like to hear that defended because I certainly have a different view. I have a view that in terms of the opportunity for our children and the success of our economy, we have to address the issue of the affordability of college tuition.

The folks who can capture this issue the best are students themselves, so I have come to the floor to read a letter from one of the students in my home State who is making the case that we should debate this issue, that we should address affordable college. Here is what he has to say:

Senator Jeff Merkley, my name is Mario Parker-Milligan. I'm the student body president at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. My job as president gives me many opportunities to discuss issues that students find important to them and often I find myself lobbying or advocating for issues that don't directly affect me. Today that is different.

Today, I find myself seeing a federal and statewide disinvestment in higher education institutions across the nation and dramatically here in Oregon. At the same time, more and more students are needing need-based aid while it too is being diminished. Students are graduating from college but our debt loads are increasing and we are finding fewer jobs upon graduation. With all of these other barriers--low federal and state investment pricing students out of tuition, low financial aid leads to high student debt, and few jobs upon graduation--the prospect of having Stafford Loans' interest rates doubling is a haunting thought. Students are continuing to pay more and get less for our education.

Today, the average student is graduating with twenty-five thousand dollars of loan debt. I have over eighteen thousand dollars of loan debt today. An interest rate of six point eight percent on top of thousands of dollars we owe in this economy doesn't seem smart either. I am not close to being done with my education and am fearful to continue to take out loans when I think of how long it will take to pay it back. Students rely heavily on student loans in order to complete college in a timely manner, otherwise many of us are forced to work 2 3 jobs while attempting to go to college full time, which usually results in prolonged stays and more debt.

As a member of the board of directors for both the Oregon Student Association (OSA) and the United States Student Association (USSA), both associations working to break down barriers to higher education, I hear stories of students that are having to choose whether or not they put food on the table or keep lights on at home. Affordability is a leading barrier to a quality education and raising interest rates will only continue to price students out of an education. Please vote to maintain the Stafford Loan interest rates at 3.4%. Don't Double Our Debt. Sincerely, Mario Parker-Milligan--of Eugene, OR.

I think Mario does voice the concerns of hundreds of thousands of students across America who are working hard to complete their coursework to pursue their dream--to gain the skills to provide both a purpose in life, a life mission, if you will, and a stable financial foundation. The prospect of coming out of college with debts that come close to a mortgage on a home is indeed daunting.

I must say, I view this through the lens of my own experience as a child of a working family. My father was a millwright and then a mechanic, and no one in my family had ever gone to college. I was the first, and the prospect of debt was a consideration that worried my family with this unfamiliar course that I was undertaking. I feel very fortunate that in the end the combination of work-study, affordable loans, and scholarship meant that I graduated from my undergraduate education without the heavy debt burden--a very modest burden--not the very heavy burden students are bearing today. That indeed gave me the range of options to pursue in life that I might not have had if I had to immediately find a job that would help me pay back those very high loans that students are facing. And those are the students who complete their education. So many more will find that they only make it partway through because the debt becomes too high. So I am disturbed--very disturbed--that the Senate body, once known as the world's greatest deliberative body, voted today not to debate this issue, not to take it up.

My colleagues may be voicing their concern about the specific aspects of the bill. I would say to them that they should come to the floor and offer amendments and we should debate those amendments. But let's not fail the students of America. I believe the majority leader has reserved the right for reconsideration, and that in a matter of a few days we might well have another vote on this topic. I would ask my colleagues to reconsider, to end their filibuster aimed at preventing us from keeping the 3.4-percent interest on Stafford loans--that they would reconsider and say, yes, there is a responsibility to debate this issue.

It shouldn't just be on Stafford loans in that we also certainly have a big challenge maintaining Pell grants and keeping those grants competitive with the rising tuition. We should debate other strategies about how to make our investment in higher education more efficient. Maybe all those debates don't have to happen on this bill; maybe this bill should be restricted to Stafford loans. But for this body to reject the notion of debating an issue central to the success of our university students, the success of our children, and the success of our economy is just wrong. Let's change that vote. Let's get on to this bill in due course in a short amount of time.

Madam President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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