SOU students back college payment concept

Stressed-out students at Southern Oregon University are welcoming the news that the state is working on a plan called "Pay It Forward, Pay It Back" — to help them get through college without paying tuition or piling up debt.

"It would make school a lot less stressful, and you wouldn't have to worry about how many classes you're taking," said Dustine Toney, a nursing senior. "I'm paying for all this myself and working in the cafeteria here. It's $40,000, and it would be wonderful not to have to worry about it."

The state Legislature unanimously approved a two-year study of the proposal, which could take tuition out of the picture but require PIF students to pay about 3 percent of their income for 24 years.

With Oregon's average per capita income of $25,500 a year, payments would be $795 a year or $72 a month. The total would be $19,000 per student.

"It would be a big relief," says anthropology sophomore Hannah Pottage, who has already run up $40,000 in debt. "It's going to be a lot of work to pay that off. I'd be jealous of these people who get in the new program."

English and writing sophomore Misha Lake says, "I'd be a lot better off with the new plan. Debt overshadows everything and has a lot of fine print. It's a lot of stress. We should be able to focus on studies. I'm glad the state is trying to improve higher education. It hasn't been a priority for them."

While at first blush it may sound like the fix for student debt, Oregon University System spokeswoman Di Saunders says no details have been set yet, and there could be some downsides, especially if you make a lot of money after college.

"You could end up grossly overpaying the cost of your education if you have high income," says Saunders. "But the upside is that if you have low income, you could underpay."

Zack Smith, an incoming freshman in criminal justice who envisions a well-paying career with the FBI or CIA, says the proposed system might not be a good deal for him.

"I'm going to stick with loans and will pay them off quicker than 24 years," he says. "I'm going to make around $80,000 a year, so I believe it will be cheaper the old way. They seem to be creating this program for low-income families."

If PIF students drop out of college, they would have to pay at a rate to be determined, Saunders said, adding that there is no "default" because there are no loans.

If you want to stay home and raise children, the family income would probably be considered as a unit, said Jason Gettel of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, which ran the numbers for a presentation to the Legislature.

The fund would have to be supplied with big money to start, but the goal is to have it be supported in 15 years by college graduates — when they're job holders, said Gettel.

If the economy crashes, it could shrink the PIF pool. But on the upside, said Barbara Dudley, a professor at Portland State University's College of Public and Urban Studies, "If you're not working, then you pay 3 percent of nothing, which is nothing.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Dudley, who created the plan with her class and presented it to legislators. "It's not a silver bullet for student debt, but it's one of the silver bullets."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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