On July 1, federal student loan rates doubled from 3.2 percent to 6.4 percent due to gridlock in Washington. The very same day, the Oregon state legislature unanimously passed a bill that would provide free tuition to students attending a public state college or university.
Students would attend college without being saddled with tuition bills. In exchange, they would begin paying back the state after becoming employed.
The bill directs higher education leaders to examine and implement a Pay It Forward pilot program and a tuition freeze. Oregon’s bold plan has prompted other states like Washington, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to consider adopting their own model of the Pay It Forward plan.
As a child of immigrants and the first in my family to earn a college degree, the opportunity to work toward a post-secondary degree was vital to achieving my American dream. I graduated debt-free thanks to the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship, various institutional scholarships, and federal and state grants. But most of my peers aren’t so fortunate. Recent changes to the Bright Futures Program have made it harder for those from low and middle-income families to afford our state’s ever-rising tuition rates.
Florida needs to adopt its own model of Pay It Forward.
Personal experience has proven to me that education is the best vehicle to escape the poverty cycle. That is why I fully believe in the Pay It Forward model. It provides everyone – regardless of family income – access to higher education to better their lives. This is not a handout, as some critics call it. Rather, students earn their degrees tuition-free while they’re in school, and when they are gainfully employed, they pay back up to 3 percent of their annual adjusted gross income for approximately 25 years into a state fund that would allow future students to earn a college degree.
Free tuition should not be a partisan issue. An educated population translates to better jobs, and thus, a better economy. Everyone wins. As one of the largest and most diverse states, we need to capitalize on our diversity and provide access to higher education for all students – regardless of their socioeconomic status – in order to bring our talent to fruition.
Critics of such a dynamic plan may argue that the start-up costs may be too high or that such a program would not cover room and board, considered the largest cost driver of higher education. That’s disappointing. The costs of higher education have long been a public policy problem, but nobody has come up with an innovative way to address the issue. Yet, when the college students of Oregon took the initiative to design a creative solution, opponents criticized the plan. As a public policy graduate student, I recognize that no policy program is perfect. However, it is more important to address those flaws rather than complain about it without providing alternative solutions.
Furthermore, critics are missing the larger vision of the Pay It Forward plan. The goal is to provide all students access to higher education. The plan isn’t to subsidize all education-related costs. If we keep the status quo, only the richest families will be able to send their children to college. With the Pay It Forward plan, families of all incomes will be able to afford tuition. Therefore, those who can’t afford to move hours away to a higher educational institution can still earn their degrees at institutions much closer to home.
I am always researching what other states are doing. Time after time, I’m disappointed that Florida isn’t the trendsetter in proposing such bold, innovative programs and policies. Maybe if we truly invested in education in this state, our students would be equipped with the tools to think critically to solve pressing problems, just as the Oregon students did. That’s not to say Floridians are lost. I am a rare case – the poster child for how empowering Florida’s students can come full circle.
The investment that the state, the University of Florida, and the Florida Next Foundation made in my career has motivated me to pay it forward for future Florida students. Florida will only succeed if all Floridians succeed.
James Chan is a second year Master of Public Policy student at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Research Director at FloridaNEXT this summer.