A banner at a protest at Cooper Union in New York City on December 8, 2012. (Courtesy of Flickr.)
At the start of the fall 2012 semester, a group of students gathered in a classroom at Portland State University, just as students in schools around the country were doing. They proceeded to spend the next few months discussing and debating student debt and possible solutions to it, but when the semester ended and the students moved on to other classes, they, unlike most, refused to allow their work to remain an academic concern.
On July 1, the Oregon legislature voted to investigate how to implement a “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” tuition plan—the very plan that those students had studied, researched and presented to a panel of state legislators, with the help of the Oregon Working Families Party and Jubilee Oregon. Under the Pay It Forward (PIF) plan, students would attend public universities without first paying tuition and, in return, pay a percentage of their income for the next twenty-four years; the aim is to create debt-free higher education.
In the days and weeks after the legislature approved the Pay It Forward bill, numerous states expressed interest in adopting the idea. Oregon is the only state in which legislators have voted on PIF, but politicians in other states are beginning to propose similar bills. In New Jersey, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced on August 5 that he and Assemblywoman Celeste Riley will introduce legislation to form a commission to look into implementing PIF in the state’s public universities. Two days later, Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach announced that he plans to do the same, and in Washington State, KUOW.org reports that State Representative Larry Seaquist is considering a PIF proposal for the next legislative session. In Ohio, where the average graduate has over $28,000 in student loan debt, State Representatives Robert F. Hagan and Mike Foley have already taken that first step, proposing a PIF bill on July 17.
The excitement over Pay It Forward is understandable: with over $1 trillion in student debt nationally, people are anxious for action. PIF, while not a solution to the problems of the rising cost of higher education and the defunding of it by governments, is a meaningful immediate step in the right direction for students who are burdened by debt after graduation and facing a youth unemployment rate of 16.2 percent—more than twice the overall unemployment rate in the United States.