Ohio's Plan to Stop Student Debt Won't Work — But It's the Start Of Something


Ohio State Reps. Robert F. Hagan (D-Youngstown) and Mike Foley (D-Cleveland) have proposed legislation similar to the “Pay It Forward” Oregon tuition plan that would allow students to attend state university without loans and delay tuition payment until after graduation. The specific details of the Oregon plan have not yet been delineated and its skeletal structure will be filled in over the course of its two-year pilot study. In order to increase the likelihood of establishing a successful debt-alleviation program, Ohio should not replicate the structure of Oregon's tuition plan. Instead, it should build upon Oregon's initial draft by putting its best students to work on developing a viable implementation strategy.

In a previous piece for PolicyMic I wrote about the power of the Portland State University students who developed the initial idea for the "Pay It Forward Plan" in a project-based learning assignment for their Senior seminar "Student Debt Policy and Advocacy" with Professors Mary King and Barbara Dudley. In their analysis of "Pay It Forward" the media has mostly circumvented the powerful role of the students — the one exception being the recent Fast Company article by Stan Alcorn, "The College Classroom Behind Oregon's Bold Plan For Tuition-Free College." 

The relevant and real-world applications of King and Dudley's course encouraged its participants to make tangible connections between classwork and the outside world. A core group of students in the class lobbied with members of the Oregon Jubilee and the Oregon Working Families Party to have the "Pay It Forward" plan considered by the Oregon state legislature, and what is most impressive is that the Oregon state legislature agreed to launch a pilot program and viability study. 

This initial victory does not mean that this particular solution is going to work. "The Pay It Forward Plan" has been critiqued from multiple angles. The convergence of critique rests on the issue of repayment: Graduates would pay 3% of their salary to the state of Oregon for 24 years to fund state tuition for future students. Some feel that this punishes students who acquire a higher salary, whereas others believe that it violates the very principles of a publicly funded education and that the state should cover all costs. This is a major point of contention. Oregon needs to first establish a clearly organized funding structure to support the initial round of "Pay It Forward" students. Therefore, Ohio cannot simply adopt the same plan proposal.

If state legislatures simply jump on board with the Oregon plan without any rigorous debate or creative and thoughtful revision, this plan is sure to fail. There is so much discussion about the relevance of college and the purpose of higher education, it seems that the time has come for all universities, but particularly public universities and colleges in Ohio, to harness the power of project-based learning and push their state legislatures in the right direction. The college seminar structure, which fosters intellectual discourse and discussions of divergent opinions, is the ideal place to begin to work out the details of a plan to save public education. If one seminar classroom could draft a yet-to-be-funded skeletal plan that is being seriously considered by two states, what would happen if every college classroom took up the same task?