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Oregon has a plan to eliminate tuition, but will it work?

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 6:58 p.m. MDT

People walk along the Portland State campus Friday, June 1, 2012, in Portland, Ore. The State Board of Higher Education has increased tuition at Oregon's seven universities by an average of 6 percent for next school year. The increase approved Friday will be offset somewhat by cuts in fees. The increases range from 1.5 percent at Western Oregon University to 9.9 percent at Southern Oregon University. Because of fee cuts, total tuition and fees would actually fall at Western Oregon and Portland State. At the University of Oregon, the state's most expensive public university, a proposed 6 percent increase would push the cost of tuition and fees for undergrads to more than $9,300. The system average would be $7,841. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) (Rick Bowmer, AP) People walk along the Portland State campus Friday, June 1, 2012, in Portland, Ore. The State Board of Higher Education has increased tuition at Oregon's seven universities by an average of 6 percent for next school year. The increase approved Friday will be offset somewhat by cuts in fees. The increases range from 1.5 percent at Western Oregon University to 9.9 percent at Southern Oregon University. Because of fee cuts, total tuition and fees would actually fall at Western Oregon and Portland State. At the University of Oregon, the state's most expensive public university, a proposed 6 percent increase would push the cost of tuition and fees for undergrads to more than $9,300. The system average would be $7,841. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Oregon is looking to revolutionize how students pay for college in the state, with a new plan that would eliminate tuition fees as a requirement for enrolling in a university. Instead, the state would implement a post-college payment program more akin to a tax.

The plan is called "Pay It Forward, Pay It Back" and was first proposed last week to Oregon’s Legislature. By eliminating up-front tuition fees, Oregon hopes to increase college enrolment and relieve some of the burden of student debt.

With the new payment plan, students wouldn’t be responsible for payment until after graduation. They would then be required to pay up to 3 percent of their future salaries back into a state fund annually for 24 years.

“Pay It Forward isn’t paying back a loan,” the Working Families Party, one of Pay It Forward’s major supporters, say on their website. “It’s paying forward a guarantee of free higher education to future students.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last May that among those 18 to 34, unemployment has risen above 10 percent. A similar report released last August shows that college tuition and fees have increased 1,120 percent since 1978. As Bloomberg points out, that’s four times faster than the increase in the consumer price index.

With such crippling costs and the continuing struggle of unemployment rates, suggesting major changes to college financing has become an ever-pressing issue. Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic suggested last week in his article “Should colleges charge engineers more than English majors?” that the “one price fits all” model needs re-evaluation. Weissmann explores everything from varying tuition based on program — for example, students in more costly programs such as engineering would pay more than English majors — to altering the cost based on course level.

While both approaches have their own snags, Weissmann believes that despite the failure to come up with a problem-free program, “there’s got to be a better system than charging the same price for steak and salad.”

Oregon’s Pay It Forward plan is certainly a response to the growing concern over public education costs. Writers such as Gina Sipley from Policymic think Oregon’s new proposal could become “a national model for the ways that project-based learning can ignite policy change.

“The spirit of this measure is to both unburden students from debilitating student loans … and to encourage students to invest in an education that might lead to a life of public service,” Sipley concluded.

Others, such as Kevin Kiley at Inside Higher Ed, are more critical of the proposal.

“At the moment there is no plan for how to pay for the proposal’s implementation,” Kiley wrote. “The state would have to forgo several years of tuition before it would collect on any returns.

“Proposals like ... ‘Pay It Forward’ plan simply to shift the burden of paying for college,” he continues, “and disguise the true costs of a college education."

Though “Pay It Forward” isn’t the first time a state has explored replacing tuition fees with a post-education tax (Washington state and California have both considered it), Oregon’s plan has gained traction the fastest.

First proposed to lawmakers by students of a senior capstone class called “Student debt: Economics, policy and advocacy,” a bill calling for a commission to study the feasibility of the program soon passed the Democrat-controlled House and Senate of the Oregon Legislature.

The next step, if the commission finds the funding plan reasonable, will be a proposal to the 2015 Legislature requesting a trial program.

JJ Feinauer is a graduate of Southern Virginia University and a content writer for the Moneywise page on DeseretNews.com. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: @jjfeinauer.

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