A quality education is the great equalizer. It opens doors to those who would normally not have access. It provides opportunities to contribute to society in ways that may have not been possible.
Increasingly, though, access to the great equalizer is becoming cost prohibitive.
Public universities and colleges are often seen as an investment in a state’s future. Graduates pay back the state through innovation and attracting businesses that are seeking high quality employees. Yet, they have been struggling due to state budget cuts. Now they are forced to make up the shortfall, which is resulting in higher tuition – at rates previously only seen at private institutions.
For many, it’s a choice between either being saddled with debt or forgoing an education.
In 2011, a group of students at University of California Riverside became frustrated at the rising tuition costs due to state budget cuts. After months of research, they presented the Fix UC program in January 2012. In short, students attend the University of California with no upfront costs and, in exchange, they would pay 5% of their income for 20 years.
The plan included income minimums and caps, as well as additional provisions for transfer students, out of state students and people who didn’t graduate. There would also be extensive employment networking and alumni support to make sure they were able to use their education. They wouldn’t be attending for free, per se, as they would be contractually obligated to agree to the future income deductions.
More accurately, they would be paying it forward for future generations.
In October 2012, the Economic Opportunity Institute, a public policy think tank based in Seattle, Washington, issued a report called Pay It Forward: Refinancing Higher Education to Restore the American Dream. It recommended creating a similar program in Washington, using Australia as a model, in which students attended for free in exchange for future income deductions. The rate, amount and time of repayment would be dependent on factors such as degree and income.
In the end, both plans were deemed unworkable and didn’t move forward.
But the seed had been planted.
In Oregon, Barbara Dudley, professor at the school of public and urban affairs at Portland State University, spoke with John R. Burbank, the executive director at the aforementioned Economic Opportunity Institute. As a result, the students in Professor Dudley’s class worked with Mr. Burbank to develop a no-tuition plan for Oregon. When it was completed, they presented it to the state legislature.
And they listened.
This month, the Oregon legislature approved a pay it forward plan for their state. It passed unanimously, and is expected to be signed by the governor. The plan recommends a 3 percent income deduction for 25 years, in exchange for attending their public universities with no upfront costs. The hope is that a pilot program will be in place as early as 2015.
Just two weeks later, state representatives in Ohio introduced a similar plan for Ohio’s 13 public universities and colleges, recommending a 3 percent future income deduction for 24 years. And while the UC Riverside students have met a temporary setback with their plan going forward, they are not discouraged. They are working on a plan for California State University.
These plans face logistical hurdles, including how to fund the initial investment of students entering. Nevertheless, they achieve a major goal of public higher education: keeping it accessible for everyone.
In a time of staggering student debt, these kinds of programs put our nation on a more sustainable path for higher education. Students and their families would be less burdened trying to pay for college. Furthermore, it inspires community by allowing those that benefited from a tuition free education to give back a little each year so that others can avail themselves of the same opportunity.
They are paying it forward…interest free.