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In Oregon, a plan to eliminate tuition and loans at state colleges


New York Times


Going to college can seem like a choice between impossibly high payments while in school or a crushing debt load for years afterward, but one state is experimenting with a third way.

This week, the Oregon Legislature approved a plan that could allow students to attend state colleges without paying tuition or taking out traditional loans. Instead, they would commit a small percentage of their future incomes to repaying the state; those who earn very little would pay very little.

The proposal faces a series of procedural and practical hurdles and will not go into effect for at least a few years, but it could point to a new direction in the long-running debate over how to cope with the rising cost of higher education. While the approach has been used in Australia, national education groups say they do not know of any U.S. university trying it.

The Oregon plan had an unusual, and unusually swift, gestation. Less than a year ago, neither elected officials nor advocacy groups there had even considered it.

It began last fall in a class at Portland State University called "Student Debt: Economics, Policy and Advocacy," taught by Barbara Dudley, a longtime political activist who teaches in the school of urban and public affairs, and Mary C. King, a professor of economics. Dudley was referred to John R. Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal policy group based in Seattle, who had studied the no-tuition approach. She, in turn, referred the students to him, and they adopted the idea as their group project for the semester.

The students and Dudley later made a presentation to state lawmakers, including state Rep. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, chairman of the higher education committee, who ran with the idea.

"It's unbelievable that it's all happened so fast," one of the students, Ariel R. Gruver, said this week. "We never imagined that we would actually accomplish something like this, and definitely not in such a short time."

Lawmakers held hearings on the plan, debated amendments and passed it, with the final vote taking place Monday in the state Senate. The Legislature's majorities are Democratic — as is the governor, John Kitzhaber — but the vote in both houses was unanimous. An aide to the governor said Kitzhaber was likely to sign the bill.

"When we talked to legislators, conservatives said it appealed to them because it's a contract between the student and the state, so they see it as a transaction, not as a grant," said Nathan E. Hunt, one of the students who proposed the plan.

The speed and unanimity offer a sharp contrast with Washington, where Democrats and Republicans have been unable to agree on a new law on federal student loans, resulting in the doubling of interest rates as of Monday.

"Everybody is concerned about the problem of student debt load and the rising cost of tuition," Dembrow said. "Not everybody agrees on the causes, but everybody agrees on the effect. We all hear about it when we're knocking on doors, running for office."

For many legislators, he added, the issue has become personal.

"It affects their kids, their grandkids," he said.

The bill instructs the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission to design a pilot program, which would then require the Legislature's approval. For now, only the broadest outlines are clear.

The idea calls for the state to provide some money to get the program running - how much would depend on how big the pilot is - but in the future, payments from former students would sustain it. The plan's supporters have estimated that for it to work the state would have to take about 3 percent of a former student's earnings for 20 years, in the case of someone who earned a bachelor's degree.

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conserve wrote:
That sounds like a great deal. Lets see..I'll get my doctorial degree and then do nothing with it. Maybe head off to India and work there with my doctorial or New York. How can they garnish my wages there? Or is it scouts honor? Maybe work at McDonalds for afew years and pay back little.
on July 4,2013 | 05:01AM
inHilo wrote:
Why do some people always think the worst of others? Do you really think someone would work at McDonalds just to pay less on a loan? If they did, that's already punishment enough.
on July 4,2013 | 08:31AM
Cricket_Amos wrote:
If the plan is going to be financially self-sustaining, then those who are working and making money are going to be paying off the student loans of those who are making very little. In other words, the engineering majors will be paying off the student debt of the sociology majors. Let's see, who came up with this? Or yes, there it is, "a political activist" and a "liberal policy group".
on July 4,2013 | 06:46AM
inHilo wrote:
Yes, life would be so much better if everyone were an engineering major. Sounds like social engineering from a conservative policy group.
on July 4,2013 | 08:38AM
2disgusted2 wrote:
You are kidding me! How are they going to pay their faculty? In the future?
on July 4,2013 | 07:00PM
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