With Congress inert, one state has stepped forward with an idea. The same day federal student loans doubled last week, Oregon’s legislature unanimously passed HB3472, or the “Pay it Forward” debt-free higher education plan. Once the bill is fully implemented—a process that will require votes from the legislature and the public over several years—Oregon high school graduates will be able to attend public colleges or universities in the state for free, and have a small percentage of their future income taken into a fund to pay for the next generation. It’s almost an inverse of Social Security: Instead of paying to ensure a measure of dignity in retirement at the end of life, Oregonians will pay to ensure an investment in student learning at the beginning.
The bill’s passage did not result from a multi-year coordinated effort hammered out by elite policymakers. Incredibly, it started just this past fall, with a college senior project at Portland State University. The 6-credit “capstone” course was called “Student Debt: Economics, Policy and Advocacy,” and it sought to combine deep research of the history of student debt with the real-world experience of actively seeking potential remedies. “We wanted to propose a solution to begin to resolve the issue on the state level,” said Ariel Gruver, one of the 15 students.