Tuition idea needs more work

By Observer editorial July 26, 2013 11:10 am
The proposed “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” tuition concept for Oregon is no doubt an interesting one. But it may also be one that raises more questions than it answers.

The Legislature voted during the latest session to explore the concept, which would allow students to attend public and community colleges for free and pay back the higher education institution through a portion of their paycheck after graduation.

Students would pay up to 3 percent of their future salaries back for 24 years. And since the payment is based on a percentage of one’s income no payment would be required during periods of unemployment.

Members of the Working Families Party, a major backer of the “Pay It Forward” idea, have said the idea is a promise of free higher education for future students.

In 2013, most would agree that educating America’s youth is an important thing to do, but we question whether this system could do it in a foolproof way.

Like Eastern Oregon University President Bob Davies said, the concept creates a direct correlation between one’s salary and what one pays for college. This could lead to further detriment of the arts since it would essentially be legitimizing the idea that some professions are more valuable than others.

Monetarily, that may be true, but we agree with Davies when he says higher education is about more than a job and a paycheck, it is also about giving back to society.

Another concern is the issue of interstate travel. Of course it is beneficial for states to create incentives like this, but oftentimes they neglect to consider how people moving out of state may impact the program. In Louisiana, the Legislature instituted TOPS, a program that largely covers tuition costs for students meeting certain criteria out of high school. The problem now is that there is little incentive to keep those students in state to pay back that money in the form of taxes. How would the state of Oregon go about collecting money from someone living in another state — or even another country?

The “Pay It Forward” program also assumes a position that most college students have 24 years to pay back their tuition, but there are plenty of adult students, some well into their 60s, who attend college and may not have the working years left to truly “pay it forward.”

So, perhaps they would only pay for 5 or 10 or 15 years before they are no longer employed. And we cannot forget the unemployment rate still creating a battle for recent college graduates. Is the state really prepared to pay for the education of people who are, for whatever reasons, unemployed?

There is no doubt that some of these concerns will be addressed by the Legislature in the coming session. If Oregon lawmakers can create a system that addresses concerns, limits loopholes and makes sense, it may be something all Oregonians can get behind.