Two years after signing of landmark law, Oregon awaits innovative free tuition plan

Pay It Forward program offers rare hope for tackling student debt crisis

Published March 26, 2015 3:10PM (EDT)

        (<a href=''>hxdbzxy</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(hxdbzxy via Shutterstock/Salon)

On July 1, 2013 -- the same day that interest rates on federal student loans doubled amid a congressional impasse -- Oregon charted another course, as its state legislature unanimously approved a landmark bill that would allow state college students to attend school tuition-free, provided they repay the state with a small share of their income once they entered the labor force.

Known as the Pay It Forward program, the legislation, which then-Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law, represented only the beginning of a long march toward free tuition. The law required the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission to develop a pilot program, and legislators would then have to sign off on the commission's proposal.

Late last summer, the commission fulfilled its task under the law. Members of the HECC unanimously voted to recommend a pilot program to lawmakers, concluding that Pay It Forward would be a boon particularly to middle class students who failed to qualify for need-based aid but nonetheless found themselves crushed by debt as tuition and other expenses soared. Urging lawmaker to keep need-based aid in place, the HECC acknowledged that the program's initial costs would be high -- peaking at $20 million in 2020 -- but determined that "the bulk of the state's transitional investment costs could be recouped" from students' payments to the state once they assumed jobs. Within 20 years, the commission calculated, "the program would allow for positive cash inflows."

Half a year later, lawmakers have yet to approve a pilot, however, and many Oregonians are grumbling with discontent. Commenters have flocked to the Facebook page of Democratic State Rep. Tobias Read, the chairman of the higher education committee, demanding that he set a vote on the proposal.

Read's committee recently held a hearing on the bill, and a work session which will cover Pay It Forward and other agenda items is scheduled for April 1. In a statement to Salon, Read indicated openness to moving forward with the program, although no vote has yet been set.

"Student debt is a tremendous problem not just in Oregon but nationwide," Read said. "We've seen a number of innovative ideas that would alleviate student debt, including Pay It Forward and Open Education Resources," a program that aims to lower costs by enhancing the use of technology in education.

Students like Bart Brandner, who lives just outside Read's Beaverton-area district, hope to see action taken soon. A liberal arts major at Portland State University, he has accrued $60,000 in debt, and his wife, who just gave birth to the couple's first child, has another $40,000.

"I'd really like to buy a home for my family, but with this kind of debt, that's just not in the cards," Brandner said.

For now, the focus is on earning a steady living. Brandner works in software development, but has often had difficulty finding work. Given that it's likely to be some time before Pay It Forward takes effect, he's unsure he'll benefit from the program, but he's adamant that legislators approve it.

"I don't think college is for everyone, but for those who need a college degree, Pay It Forward could be a lifeline," Brandner said.

Brandner knows anecdotally that his situation is not unusual. Many of his fellow students, he said, have debt of $50,000 or more, and they agonize about finding work that pays enough to meet mounting expenses.

It's a problem faced by a record number of college students across the country, who in 2012 were saddled with an average debt of $29,400, according to the Institute for College Access and Success' Project on Student Debt. Cumulatively, Americans owe $1.3 trillion in student loans, and federal action has proven stubbornly elusive. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-MA) bid to allow students to refinance their debt faltered last year, and though she has reintroduced the proposal, it faces long odds in a unified Republican Congress.

Amid federal inaction, advocates see programs like Pay It Forward as the best hope to tackle the student debt crisis.

"If progress can be made on the crisis of student debt anywhere in America, it'll be here in Oregon," said Karly Edwards, director of the Oregon Working Families Party, which worked to pass the 2013 law. "The Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature have a real opportunity to get something done on this issue."

Clarification: This post originally stated that Rep. Tobias Read has voiced reservations about the cost of the Pay It Forward program. In fact, Read raised concerns about the cost of a separate program providing free community college. 

By Luke Brinker

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