Oregon Tuition Plan: New Plan Could Revolutionize Higher Education


Oregon is leading the way in making innovative changes to higher education. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has been lauded for his Know Before You Go initiative, which would ensure that students receive accurate data about higher education, and this past week the Oregon state legislature approved a Pay It Forward measure for "free college tuition." This measure passed on the same day that Congress doubled the interest rate on federally subsidized student Stafford Loans, thus increasing the burden of higher education for working class students.  

Oregon's Pay It Forward measure would allow students to attend public colleges (including two-year community colleges) and universities in Oregon without any upfront costs. Upon graduation, students would be required to pay 3% of their annual salary, for the following 24 years, to the state of Oregon to fund the next generation of students. The spirit of this measure is to both unburden students from debilitating student loans (the current rates for the recently increased Stafford loans are 6.8%) and to encourage students to invest in an education that might lead to a life of public service.

Although the Pay It Forward concept was designed by John Burbank of Economic Opportunity Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit, and modeled on the Australian Higher Education Contribution Scheme, it was the students at Portland State University (PSU) in conjunction with the Oregon Working Families Party who brought the measure to the table and through active lobbying had it passed unanimously. It is imperative that students remain an integral part in shaping the finer details of this initiative. With states like Washington, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin watching and considering the adoption of their own Pay It Forward model, the students of Oregon are uniquely poised to transform the future of American public colleges and universities.

What has not been discussed in the Associated Press is that this momentum around Pay It Forward was born out of a PSU senior capstone project titled “Student Debt Economics, Policy and Advocacy." The students involved in this senior capstone used the research from their classroom project to form the group Students for Educational Debt Reform and began to collaborate with the Oregon Working Families Party and Jubilee Oregon to have legislators consider their findings.

Where the approval of Pay It Forward is seemingly good news for Oregon students, there are some points that deserve further exploration before the plan is approved by the 2015 state legislature and fully executed. As a a former Oregonian who taught high school in Eugene for several years, I am familiar with the devastating effects of Measure 5, which was once imagined to be the great equalizer in public K-12 education but when in operation began to underfund the public school system and continues to have deleterious effects. A fatal flaw in Measure 5 was that it was implemented by those who were neither teachers nor students. College students, who are eligible to vote and to lobby, need to remain a central component in the development of the start-up plan of the Pay It Forward initiative. 

Oregon is a tax-averse state. It is one of only five states in the U.S. without sales tax and a sales tax measure has been voted down by the Oregon legislature nine times. With only property and income tax available to support public institutions, the initial phase of Pay It Forward needs to be funded outside the tax structure, which in many ways is antithetical to the function and purpose of a truly public education (many public college systems such as the City University of New York and the California State University System were once funded solely by the taxpaying people of the state, and students did not pay any tuition). These first few pilot years are crucial because property owners, particularly in Oregon, are not likely to support any tax increases to fund even the initial phases of a public-service initiative. 

As Oregon students conceptualize their role in the future of this plan, they must also take into account reciprocity agreements with the Western Undergraduate Tuition Exchange program, where students in certain western states can avoid paying out-of-state tuition at four Oregon public colleges. It remains to be seen whether out-of-state students in this program will attempt to take advantage of Pay It Forward.

Another question about the program concerns international students who typically pay very high premiums to attend American public colleges and universities. Oregon is a very popular state for international students because of its convenient location to Pacific Rim nations. As a sales-tax-free state it is a very affordable place for international students to make the expensive purchases that come with attending college abroad. Will colleges be inclined to take on more international students during the initial years of the program to offset the cost of the first phase of development?

The students of Oregon have a long road ahead of them in the fight for free public education, but their nascent steps are a national model for the ways that project-based-learning can ignite policy-change.