Can “Paying it Forward” Work?

While Congress is deadlocked on what to do regarding student loan interest rates (I have to note here that interest rates on existing loans WILL NOT CHANGE!), others have pushed forward with innovative ways to make college more affordable. I wrote last fall about an innovative proposal from the Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal think tank from Washington State, which suggests an income-based repayment program for students attending that state’s public colleges and universities. The Oregon Legislature just approved a plan to try out a version of its program after a short period of discussion and bipartisan approval.

This proposal, which the EOI refers to as “Pay It Forward,” is similar to how college is financed in Australia. It would charge students no tuition or fees upfront and would require students to sign a contract stating that they would pay a certain percentage of their adjusted gross income per year (possibly three percent of income or one percent per year in college) for at least 20 years after leaving college. It appears that the state would rely on the IRS to enforce payment in order to capture part of the earnings of those who leave the state of Oregon. This would be tricky to enforce in theory, given the IRS’s general reticence to step into state-level policies.

While I am by no means convinced by simulations conducted regarding the feasibility of the program, I think the idea is worth a shot as a demonstration program. I think the cost of the program will be larger than expected, especially since income-based repayment programs decouple the cost of college from what students pay.  Colleges suddenly have a strong incentive to raise their posted tuition substantially in order to capture this additional revenue. In addition to the demonstration program, I would like to see a robust set of cost-effectiveness estimates under different enrollment, labor market, and repayment parameters. I’ve done this before in my research examining the feasibility of a hypothetical early commitment Pell program.

Needless to say, I’ll be keeping an eye on this program moving forward to see how the demonstration program plays out. It has the potential to change state funding of higher education, and at the very least will be an interesting program to evaluate.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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