For the past week, the world of higher education has been buzzing about Oregon, where state legislators have taken the first step towards a radical attempt at combating student debt. The proposed "Pay It Forward" plan is catchy as it is seemingly straightforward. Colleges would no longer charge their undergraduates tuition up front. Instead, students would promise to pay a fixed percentage of their income to the state for a set number of years after graduation.
You earn a lot, you pay a lot. You earn a little, you pay a little. But most importantly, nobody has to take out loans to cover the cost of classes.
It's bold. It sounds progressive. And if implemented, it could be a boondoggle. Here's why.
To be absolutely clear, Pay It Forward is nowhere close to becoming a reality. So far, Oregon's legislature has passed a bill instructing a state commission to consider the idea and possibly flesh out a pilot program that would itself have to be approved by lawmakers. What officially exists now barely qualifies as an outline.
That said, we have a decent sense of what the plan might look like in practice. As originally proposed by a group called Students for Educational Debt Reform, bachelor's degree recipients would pay 3 percent of their annual income for 24 years after finishing school, while community college grads would pay 1.5 percent. In other words, each full year of college would cost 0.75 percent of a student's earnings. The average B.A. completing their degree today would pay an estimated $39,653 over a lifetime, more than $7,000 above the actual cost of tuition and fees. That extra money would go towards making the system self-sustaining over the long term. However, taxpayers would have to keep footing their portion of the state's higher ed bill. Pay It Forward would only replace the costs currently covered by tuition.