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A proposed pilot program for Oregon's much-ballyhooed Pay It Forward program would involve 4,000 students and take 10 years to show results. The cost is estimated at nearly $20 million for the 2015-17 biennium, climbing each biennium to nearly $40 million in 2020-21 before gradually decreasing to zero in 2038-39.

It would provide tuition-free college to those 4,000 students, who would still need to pay for books and living expenses. They would repay with 0.75 to 4 percent of their income — depending on the number of credits taken — for 20 years after completing their schooling.

It's a popular concept in a state and nation struggling with rising tuition and staggering student debt. But seeing these new details reaffirms that the idea is too expensive and too uncertain.

The Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission is considering the proposal, following the Legislature's instruction to research the idea and come up with a plan. If approved by the HECC and the Legislature, the program would launch with 1,000 students in the 2016-17 school year, adding an additional 1,000 students in each of the next three years.

Some of the participants would be selected randomly. Others would come from schools serving disadvantaged populations.

In addition to helping all students avoid the burden of debt, the program seeks to bring more disadvantaged students into higher education in order to meet the 40-40-20 goal established by Gov. John Kitzhaber, which states that 40 percent of the class of 2025 should earn at least a bachelor's degree, 40 percent an associate's degree or certificate and 20 percent at least a high school diploma.

We share proponents' desire to provide equal access to higher education and relieve the crushing burden of college debt. But we live in a state that has been disinvesting in higher education for years. A recent study in The Washington Post showed Oregon with a 49.9 percent drop in per-student spending on higher education from 2008 to 2013, the third worst in the nation. This is also a state that struggles to support its K-12 system. We should focus on those basics, not on a fancy, new and unproven system.