Oregon House approves tuition overhaul study

The Oregon House passed a bill last Monday opening the door for creating a new tuition system at Oregon colleges that was co-written in part by Portland State students.

The Oregon House passed a bill last Monday opening the door for creating a new tuition system at Oregon colleges that was co-written in part by Portland State students.

The bill, HB 3472, combines two related tuition bills in the Oregon House—the first concerns tuition freezes for Oregon universities, and the second is a proposal for a “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back” program, which would create a cyclical tuition fund for Oregon students.

The program, pushed by many PSU students, was originally drafted by the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle.

“Student debt is some of the biggest debt you can have outside of, say, buying a house,” said Seri Soulatha, a PSU senior who helped draft a proposal for the “Pay it Forward” program with his Senior Capstone class last fall. “Creating a program like this to both help students get out of debt and stop it in the first place will hopefully be a great step forward.”

The pilot program stands to replace the current system of tuition and fees at universities with a pool fund: Students entering college will sign a binding contract with the state of Oregon to pay a certain percentage of their annual adjusted gross income after graduation—3 percent for 24 years, as the plan currently stands.

While the plan would require state support to get started, contributions from students would grow the program to self-sufficiency in 25 years.

Soulatha and his fellow students organized a group called Students for Educational Debt Reform to help push the bill in Salem, and opened a Facebook page and a YouTube account where they uploaded a series of videos explaining the plan before it was pitched to the Legislature.

Support came along the way from groups such as the Oregon University System and the Oregon Working Families Party.

“This is a big day for Oregon students,” the OWFP said in a press release. “But we couldn’t have done it without your help.” After the bill went to the House, the OWFP sent more than 4,000 emails pushing legislators to vote for the bill.

The bill is now headed to Gov. Kitzhaber’s desk, and its unanimous approval has attracted the attention of the national media, drawing mentions from The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

“I was surprised, honestly,” Soulatha said. “Going into the class I didn’t think anything would come about from it. But it is giving the student debt crisis the necessary attention it needs, especially with [Stafford loan] interest rates doubling, which will just make more debt.”

The passing of HB 3472 does not guarantee implementation of the “Pay it Forward” program, however. After it is signed by the governor, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission will conduct two sets of studies during the 2015 legislative session to determine the efficiency of tuition freezes and to look into the efficacy of the program.

If the HECC determines the program is feasible, it will be up for another vote to determine its implementation.

But it is very possible the HECC could find too many wrinkles in the program the way it currently stands.

That Oregon would need to financially support the system until it can reach self-sufficiency looks daunting to a state government already asking difficult financial questions. And tracking students for payments after many leave the state will require complex tracking mechanisms not currently set in place.

“These are the kinds of creative ideas we need to look at,” said Diane Saunders, director of communications for the OUS. “There are certainly a lot of sticky issues, but we are at a time when we need to start looking at new options. There is a recognition that the current form of tuition isn’t working.”

Whether “Pay it Forward” passes in its current state or not, Saunders explained there’s a need to re-examine the way Oregon looks at tuition.

She described the difficulties of maintaining a manageable budget for state schools, which received higher appropriations from the state in 1991 than in recent years despite having 34,000 more students now.

And tuition, she explained, cannot simply be excised from the table—students currently pay 70 percent of the working costs of Oregon schools, when they were only responsible for 30 percent 20 years ago.

Regardless of what happens with the HECC’s study, it seems clear the national conversation about student debt is only getting louder, and groups like PSU’s Students for Educational Debt Reform and the OUS are increasing the pressure on lawmakers to reduce the financial strain on students suffering from overwhelming debt.

Find more information on OUS’s website at ous.edu. The Students for Educational Debt Reform can be reached at facebook.com/sedrpdx.