U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley promised Southern Oregon University students Wednesday they would introduce bills to ease their debt load so at graduation they won't feel "like they’ve been hit by a wrecking ball." They spoke in a meeting with students in Hannon Library on the SOU campus.

The two Democratic senators from Oregon, who hold seats on the Appropriations, Budget and Finance committees, said they’re in powerful positions to help shepherd through bills that would freeze or lower tuition, require colleges to post the market value of their degrees and give students favorable tax treatment on forgiven loans.

Wyden said he's seen students as young as 13 and 14 giving up on their dream of going to college because of the huge debt they would incur by the time they graduated.

Merkley said the crisis goes back to a partisan divide in Congress between those who see higher education as a public investment and those who see it as a private luxury.

“We’re doing it as a public investment,” said Merkley.

He said in Germany, the state pays for most of a student's higher education, leaving a burden of 5 percent of the annual family income.

“In the U.S., it’s 50 percent," Merkley said. "Other countries don’t inflict this stress on students. Only us. It’s an incredible financial gauntlet.”

Wyden said the college debt crisis threatens not just graduates' futures but the future of the country.

“This is an opportunity to build a grass-roots coalition of students and young people for affordable education," Wyden said. "They think you won’t vote and no one cares about their education. Change won’t come from Washington, but it comes from the bottom up.”

Merkley agreed, noting, “It’s essential for our children and the future of our economy ... presidential candidates who ignore it are going to lose. It matters to the American Dream.”

The lawmakers asked for personal stories of tuition debt from about 20 SOU students and called for a show of hands of those who expect to graduate with more than $30,000 in debt. Most hands went up.

Sophomore Jackie Rogers said her parents had saved enough for her and her two siblings but the money was wiped out by the Great Recession. While Pell Grants (for low-income students) and other aid are aimed at undergraduates, little seems to cover law and medical school, she said.

Environmental engineering student Dave Kelly said he gets a Pell Grant, eats a lot of rice and beans and grows vegetables but can’t get food stamps unless he works at least 20 hours a week, something he can’t do and study, too.

Student Emily Pfeiffer said she is careful with spending so she can pay rent, but a bigger worry is “spending a significant portion of my life” paying a debt of $20,000 and being unable to afford a house or start a family.

Merkley said a bill he plans to introduce next week would cap or lower tuition and allow students to refinance their debt at the same interest as banks, with payments not to exceed 10 percent of disposable income.

If loans are forgiven for public service or other means, said Merkley, the Student Loan Affordability Act would ensure that the savings are not taxed as income.

The Student Right-To-Know Act, already introduced with Wyden as the lead sponsor, has Republican support and requires colleges to specify the market value of a degree before a student signs an application or loan. Co-sponsors are Senators Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mark Warner, D-Va.

“This time in college should be a joyous time, not a water torture ... or feeling like they’ve been hit by a wrecking ball," Wyden said.

After the meeting, SOU President Roy Saigo said, “The senators have their finger on the most telling data, about Germany — and why ours is so expensive. Anything the federal government can do is going to be helpful to the middle class, which has been reduced so drastically in recent years.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.