No magic bullet

An innovative college tuition plan is unlikely to be a real solution

Backers of an innovative idea to help Oregon students attend college deserve credit for thinking outside the box. But the "pay it forward" tuition plan is hardly the answer to college affordability.

On the surface, it sounds great. Oregon students would attend state colleges and universities tuition-free. In return, they would promise to pay a small percentage of their future income for 25 years after earning their degrees. The money they pay back would go into a fund to cover the tuition of future students. Eventually, the program would become self-sustaining.

The plan was developed by students in a capstone class at Portland State University who modeled it after a proposal drawn up by the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington state public policy organization. The students presented their plan to the Legislature, with the backing of PSU President Wim Wiewel.

The Legislature passed a bill last week directing the new Higher Education Coordinating Commission to study the idea and draw up plans for a pilot project called Pay It Forward, Pay It Back. The pilot project would be presented to the 2015 session of the Legislature.

The idea is simple and appealing. Students would be freed of the need to take out loans for tuition. In return, they would sign a contract to pay a fixed percentage of future earnings for 20 to 25 years. The percentage is not specified in the bill, but backers said it likely would be 3 percent for graduates with bachelor's degrees and 1.5 percent for those earning two-year associate degrees at community colleges.

Because the same percentage would apply to everyone, graduates in high-paying careers would pay more, those in less lucrative fields a smaller amount.

So far, so good. But there are enormous hurdles, and the plan is no panacea.

First, it would cost the state an estimated $9 billion up front to fund the program. As students graduated and began paying back, that seed money would be paid off and the program would become self-sustaining in 25 years.

Good luck raising an amount equal to more than half the entire state general fund.

Second, tuition is only part of the expense of attending college. Critics of the concept note that housing, food and books can be expensive, too — in some cases, even more costly than tuition. Students whose families cannot cover those expenses would still need to take out loans.

The students who developed this idea are to be commended for a creative approach — one that has drawn national attention. Without question, the system of paying for college is broken. But it's unlikely this plan would fix anything even if it could be implemented, which is highly doubtful.

It was easy enough for lawmakers to order up a pilot project to be presented two years from now — the bill passed unanimously in both houses. It would be better for the Legislature to beef up the state's abysmal support for higher education so colleges did not have to rely so heavily on tuition to cover operating expenses.

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