Oregon legislature approves ‘Pay it Forward, Pay it Back’ bill, proposes free tuition for in-state students

Pick a university, any university. Don’t worry about the money: Oregon will pick up the check. That is, until you graduate.

In essence, that’s the plan behind HB 3472.

On the same day that Congress voted to double the interest rate to subsidized Stafford Loans, the Oregon House of Representatives and Senate voted unanimously to pass the bill that gives Oregon residents the opportunity to go to any public university in the state for free. However, once you graduate and get a job, Oregon will take a percentage from your monthly paycheck which will then go towards paying the tuition you skipped out on while you were attending college.

The spirit of the aptly nicknamed, “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back” bill is to give all Oregon students a chance to go to college, no matter what financial barriers might be in their way.

“Twenty years ago, the state paid seventy percent of students tuition. Now it’s flipped around with the state only paying thirty percent,” said Diane Saunders, the Director of Communication for the Oregon University System. “We need to look at solutions that not only help students get to college — but for them to graduate from there as well.”

More than 30,000 more students are also enrolled in Oregon universities now than there were 20 years ago.

More students, higher tuition and less financial aid is the outcome of an education budget that has remained stubbornly stagnant over the last couple of decades.

For Oregon students, the bill might look like a logical piece of saving grace, but it is still vague, and doesn’t yet sufficiently answer the multiple questions that come along with such a drastic change. Questions such as how much do you end up paying if you drop out of college? How much (if any) more will out-of-state students have to pay for tuition to fill the void left from Oregon students? Is there a definite percentage that comes out of your paycheck? Or is it based off your income?

“There’s still a lot of questions that need to be answered properly,” Saunders said. “But the biggest thing is making sure there’s a pool of money that will be self-sufficient and is able to supplement for the fees and tuition that won’t be paid back until they graduate.”

In fact, in just one year, the program would need upward of $171 million just to cover the expenses of first-year students at Oregon’s public universities. That’s a figure from the 2010-2011 academic year when the seven OUS universities had first-year enrollment of 21,00, the most recent for which figures are available. To move these students and the 23 classes that come after them through four years of college, the program would need at least $9 billion order to become viable.

These were the numbers the Oregon Center for Public Policy cited in a presentation to the legislature while the bill was being debated. The idea for the program came from students in an economics class at Portland State University. Oregon is currently the only state to have considered such a program legislatively.

Junior public relations major Lauren Walker believes the bill negates any motivation for students to finish school in a timely manner or even find a job after college.

“Why work so hard?” Walker said, mentioning that those who graduate and find higher paying careers would end up contributing more to the fund than those who decided to go into service positions, such as teachers or reporters.

“You don’t know how much you’re going to make after college,” Walker said. “Just saying it’ll be 3 percent won’t matter if I don’t get a job.”

“A lot of scholarships cover rent,” senior business major Morgane Marlow said. “How do you pay for rent? How do you pay for groceries?”

At the same time, Marlow acknowledges the program could have positive effects.

“There could be perks — it’d be nice not to have to pay right now,” she said.

Walker says the Oregon legislature’s plan has a glaring hole in it: What if subsidized tuition motivates more students to remain in-state? How would the UO, along with the rest of the colleges in the OUS, deal with swelling class sizes and a further drain on faculty and other resources? Would in-state students get priority over those applying from out-of-state? As a student from Nevada paying double what the average in-state student does in tuition, this worries her.

“We can’t solve the issues with one grand plan,” Saunders said. “But the golden age of funding for education is long gone. We’re looking for a solution to both the struggles of students paying for college, as well as trying to fix Oregon’s budget.”

The bill was introduced as a study bill, which means that by the 2015 legislative period, a test program needs to be put forward to the 2015 Legislature. The test program would involve trying out the “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” program on a select group of students from their freshman year until graduation. Meaning that if everything ran smoothly, the program still couldn’t be active until 2019 at the earliest.


Craig Garcia

Craig Garcia