‘Education should be free’

Hundreds of students from Oregon’s community colleges and public universities descended on the Capitol building in Salem Thursday to voice their concerns about mounting student debt and proposed tuition hikes.

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Hundreds of students from Oregon’s community colleges and public universities descended on the Capitol building in Salem Thursday to voice their concerns about mounting student debt and proposed tuition hikes.

The rally, organized by the Oregon Student Association, drew about 450 Oregon students. Around 50 of them were from Portland State; 30 went down to Salem on a bus rented by PSU’s student government and 20 others were already in Salem lobbying legislators as part of the overall effort.

The group marched several blocks from a rallying point to the Capitol building, chanting slogans such as “Can’t stop! Won’t stop!” and “No Cuts! No Fees! Education should be free!” They were lobbying for an increase in state higher education spending to the tune of $850 million for four-year universities, $510 million for community colleges and $15 million for the Oregon
Opportunity Grant.

According to an OSA press release, these increases “will help stabilize funding for higher education in Oregon and prevent sharp tuition increases next year.” While these increases were certainly supported among student protestors, tuition spikes and student debt were also salient concerns, with most in attendance having a story to share.

“For multiple terms I’ve had to choose between paying for textbooks and paying rent,” said Lamar Wise, a student at the University of Oregon and a board member of the Oregon Students of Color Coalition. “How am I supposed to make a better future for myself and my family when I have to take out loan after loan to get an education?”

“After I learned that student debt is higher than credit card debt [nationwide], I got worried,” said Deyalo Bennette, a junior at PSU majoring in philosophy. He wants his brother and sister to be able to attend school, and not get priced out of an education.

Rich Quist, another PSU student, said that he had spent only $12,000 on an engineering degree (that he was one term away from completing) at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. After a change of heart he reoriented his studies, and two years at a Boston community college and one year at PSU has already amounted to $36,000.

Yellow balloons and markers were provided for students to advertise their debts.

“We are up to our necks in debt and tuition continues to climb,” said Merriam
Weatherhead, the student body president at Lane Community College and chair of the board of directors of the OSA.

According to the OSA, funding per student in Oregon has decreased by 32 percent between 2002 and 2012. “Sixty-eight percent of Oregon students will graduate with student debt, and the average student debt in Oregon is $25,497,” the group said.

“Total student debt in the United States increases by $2,853.88 per second.”

The rally saw numerous speakers of various stripes, from students and student advocates to state legislators. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, emphasized the difficult task that this legislative session (Oregon’s 77th) is charged with.

“Whether it’s education, health and human services or public safety, we have to fund essential services,” Kotek said. “But among all the difficult choices and concerns and needs, the one thing we’re doing this session is prioritizing education.

“If we leave this session with more money for students and for our schools, we will have done the people’s business, and that’s what we plan on doing,” Kotek said, earning applause from the crowd.

Michael Dembrow, a Democrat from Portland and chair of the House Committee on Higher Education and Workforce Development, was also in attendance.

“From struggle comes victory,” Dembrow said, referring to the recent passage of Oregon’s tuition equity legislation. “Ten years—10 years—that the OSA has been struggling for tuition equity. Never lost hope, never lost energy, never lost vision—and I love you all. Thank you very much.”

Asked whether this sort of activism affects change, Chris Dollar, the campaign director for the Associated Students of Portland State University, answered, “Yes it does.”

A day of action at the Capitol last year saw 200 students rally for and receive an extra $10 million for the Oregon Opportunity Grant, he said: “So things like this actually work.” He added that “this is one of the only ways that we can actually fight for student