Oregon Lawmakers Want to “Pay It Forward” To Ease Student Debt

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The average college student graduating in 2011 had an average of $26,600 in debt. Sadly, not a lot has been done about the modern twenty-something’s intense struggle to balance debt with unemployment and a recovering economy – until now.

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The Oregon State Senate unanimously passed what’s known as the Pay It Forward proposal last Monday to combat the growing amount of debt (and accompanying stress) students collect in the process of completing higher education. If signed into law, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission will draft a pilot Pay It Forward program meant to take effect in 2015.

The legislation would set a flat 3% payment plan for higher education based on graduates’ gross income over a 25-year period – far less than the current federal interest rate of 6.8% on student loans. These funds would, in turn, be used to finance the next generation of students receiving college educations, who would then grow up and pay their dues to support the next batch of students and so on and so forth in a hopefully never ending dream of tassels and pomp and circumstance. The Pay it Forward act would essentially make those who enter fields with higher returns more responsible for feeding into the educational system they benefited from so greatly than those who struggle to find employment or pursued less lucrative or populated fields; a student who earns a BA in Business and goes on to make $80,000 per year would cover the losses of someone who makes $35,000 doing nonprofit work at the same relative level.

I believe this proposal is great for a variety of reasons, and one major reason why is how it will benefit women who are entering a still-discriminatory workforce. The legislation’s monetary model relieves a lot of disproportional stress that women receive when entering the workplace and are faced with paying back loans: while it is true that women outnumber male college graduates, the continued gendering of college majors greatly affects the amount of women in the workforce in STEM fields and other industries that often pay comfortably, thus leading to an even wider gender wage gap that systemically differentiates the means available to women to pay back their loans. The Pay it Forward act also helps to open up the stigma and accompanying drop in pay grade surrounding many “feminine” majors most often pursued by women and minorities, allowing students to more freely choose to follow the major they are passionate about versus being funneled into ones based on their ability to make money to pay back debt. Add in the fact that interest on your student loans doesn’t stop accruing while women take off work to have children and raise families (which more and more women are doing without male financial support), and it becomes even more clear that relieving debt means liberating America’s women leaders from disparate financial burdens.

The Pay it Forward legislation also goes a long way for those who are deterred from entering higher education due to the high cost. This bill moves to cut across racial and ethnic lines to promote equal participation in the educational process among groups that remain grossly behind in the classrooms (at a rate that is nearly a third of that of white students) at the university level.

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Higher education is about opening gates and making dreams come true – and it shouldn’t come with an unbearable price tag. The American Dream should be a good fit for everyone and possible to anyone. While cost may not be the only factor keeping marginalized groups back in higher education, there’s no doubt that opening up financial barriers will make the next generation of leaders more able to access the skills to do so.

While the bill is unlikely to take affect for several more years, hopefully Oregon’s “out of the box” approach towards educational reform will provide a viable solution for our modern rates of overwhelming student debt.

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