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Pay it Forward program aims to eliminate college tuition

The state is not expected to have the full program ready until 2019.
Photo provided by Doug Kerr
The state is not expected to have the full program ready until 2019.

Future students attending college in Oregon may be lacking one major part of the current higher-education experience: student loans. The Pay it Forward program, unanimously passed by the Oregon House and Senate earlier this year, aims to eliminate the need for taking out expensive school loans. Instead, graduates will pay a percentage out of their paychecks for a period of 20 years, with money funding future student’s tuition.

“It is truly impressive that the Oregon Legislature was able to pass this bill unanimously at a time when bitter, partisan politics have become the norm.” Sen. Jeff Merkley said, “They are doing Oregon proud. I think the unanimous vote to explore this model speaks to how big of a crisis our current student debt situation, and how strongly people feel we must find a new model that works for middle class families.”

“I really like it,” CIS student James Ogborn said, “because I can’t really afford college. For someone that is responsible enough, and that will pay it off, I think it’s a great idea. I think [student attendance] will probably go up, drastically in the first couple of years.”

“I think it could work; it sounds good,” student Bill Spielman said, “I think this is a realistic approach to take some of that burden and stress off [students]so they can focus on their academics.”

While the program is not expected to be fully implemented until 2019, a test-pilot program is expected to be in place within the next several years.

“Because this bill was passed, Oregon is going to be the first state to begin exploring the Pay it Forward model and will develop detailed options for consideration by 2015,” Sen. Merkley said.

When the bill was announced, there was some initial criticism that the bill would unfairly target higher-earning graduates, since the re-payment plan will vary between 3-5 percent of the student’s paycheck. A higher-earning worker would therefore pay a larger amount with each check.

“The key feature of this is that it guarantees college affordability for everyone, regardless of what they end up earning,” Merkley said. “The system we currently have is broken and we need bold and innovative solutions if we are going to fix this problem. There’s a big difference between having a huge debt that you know you have to pay off whether or not you can afford it, and having a small, fixed contribution that you know will be affordable even when you’re going through tough economic times. For those at the top who do very well, they will get to help ‘pay it back’ to the next generation.”

Ogborn said “I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think it’s kind of fair. If you were able to get educated enough to get a high-paying job, then the amount you are paying back is going to be equal to the type of education and the type of job you got in the first place.”

Spielman said “My only argument to that would be that percentage-wise it sounds similar to how our tax system works, if you make more money, you are going to be taxed more. The more that you’re going to make, you’re going to have more of a luxury, because you are going to be above the realistic charge, as opposed to lower classes; they’re not going to have as much to work with regardless.”

For many, school has become an unaffordable proposition. With rising interest rates on loans, and stagnant wages for graduates, a college education no longer guarantees financial freedom.

“People see our current debt crisis as unacceptable,” Sen. Merkley said.“Student loan debt is dragging down our economy, impacting the ability of graduates to buy homes, start a family or start a business. It is a 1 trillion dollar crisis that is having a huge effect on students and graduates. We need a new model.”

So while the program is still several years away from initial implementation, it could be a revolutionary model for the rest of the nation. Senator Merkley noted that multiple states had already indicated their curiosity in the program. “New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Washington, California, Texas and Vermont have all expressed interest.”