Activist holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
On July 1, federal student loan rates doubled—yes, doubled—from 3.4 percent to 6.8, after members of Congress went home for fireworks without lifting a finger on the issue. Meanwhile, in Oregon, legislators unanimously passed a bill paving the way for students to attend public universities without paying tuition or taking out traditional loans at all.
Fueled by the organizing savvy, policy creativity and relentless effort of the state Working Families Party, and by a classroom of outstanding college students, the new bill offers a progressive victory and a common-sense national model on an issue where Congress has recently been derelict at best. The legislation, which Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber is expected to sign, instructs Oregon’s Higher Education Coordination Commission to come up with a “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” public university financing model in time for a legislative vote in 2015.
Under such a model, students pay nothing while in school; instead, after graduation, four-year students pay 3 percent of their income for the next two decades or so to fund the education of future students—without a role for the big banks. (Those who attend for less time would pay a pro-rated amount.) Once start-up costs are addressed (no small matter), the system could pay for itself. It would ask the most money of those graduates best equipped to pay, and it would represent a huge stride in putting an end to the crushing debt horror stories which Occupy Wall Street helped to place on the national radar.
While victories like Oregon’s are often the result of decade-long campaigns, this incremental step came to pass with a speed that surprised even its most ardent supporters. And it demonstrates the power of unconventional alliances. The “Pay It Forward” approach has been tried in Australia, but not in the United States. It got legs here when John Burbank, who directs the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute, connected with a college class taught by Barbara Dudley, who co-founded the Working Families Party of Oregon. Students in the Portland State University class, “Student Debt: Economics, Policy and Advocacy,” took up a push for “Pay It Forward” as their group project, and the WFP embraced it as a legislative priority. Together, they seized legislators’ attention, and secured their support.