The “Pay It Forward” method of paying for college was introduced in the Oregon Legislature in 2013. A group of students from Portland State University advocated for the proposal to eliminate tuition for Oregon students at public colleges in the state, and instead have students pay by contributing a small percentage of their income after college over a period of years.
In the 2015 session, lawmakers introduced a bill to make Pay It Forward a reality. Rep. Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) is one of the bill’s chief sponsors. She says the program is necessary, in part, because of state cuts to higher education funding.
“Between 2008 and 2014 alone, Oregon cut almost 40 percent of their funding and tuition doubled,” Williamson says. “So we have to go back to the drawing board on how we finance higher education in this state.”
Ben Cannon, the executive director of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) says they have done research on the proposal as well as similar programs.
“We concluded that a small pilot that folks can volunteer to participate in would be a worthy initiative,” Cannon says. “[It is] a sort of novel and useful approach to addressing college affordability barriers for some Oregon students.”
Cannon says the commission’s main focus is to put more money toward the Oregon Opportunity Grant, a need-based grant program, that Williamson and student advocates for Pay It Forward say does not go far enough.
“I think there will always be a tension between meeting the needs of our students right now and rethinking the way that we finance higher ed and how we structure [it] in the state,” Williamson says.
Kevin Rackham, a recent Portland State University graduate, has has been advocating for Pay It Forward since his freshman year.
“This is the kind of thing Oregon needs right now,” Rackham says. “We need new ideas. We don’t need more of the same stuff that we have been doing.”
Despite drawing national media attention, the legislation didn’t get off the ground this session. Now, a group of legislators wants to bring the idea closer to a reality. HB 2662 initially established Pay It Forward, contingent on the state finding funds to support it. It was then amended in the House Revenue Committee and now directs the HECC to research and create a specific set of rules and details that could become the basis of a viable program. That report would be sent to lawmakers in 2016 and 2017.