U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley wants to change how Oregonians think about financing higher education. He wants to institute a program where students “pay it forward.” They would receive free tuition in return for slightly garnished wages through their work life, which would be returned to fund the university they attended.
Merkley is a smart guy, so I’m sure I must be missing something. Getting something free today (tuition) in return for small payments stretching far into the future doesn’t sound like paying it forward as much as paying it backward. It sounds less like a ground-breaking education finance formula and more like a payday loan come-on.
Wimpy always told Popeye, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Merkley’s model looks like a Wimpy solution to education funding. But maybe there’s something here we can work with.
First, it must be said that University of Oregon students are ahead of this curve, without ever being asked. Or, more precisely, they were asked and they consented. They were asked in 2012 to “pay it forward” by accepting a hike in student fees to finance an expansion in the Erb Memorial Union, knowing full well that the improvements will be in place in 2016, after many of them have completed their degrees.
That’s “paying it forward,” in the literal sense. Every current upperclassman deserves to have his or her name on a plaque inside the facility. At least then they can tour the facility as alumni and see their contribution was recognized.
Merkley now is trying to scare up federal funds to get his “pay it forward” program off the ground in Oregon and a few other states. But this effort belies the truth about the concept. It’s not really “pay it forward.” It requires a sugar daddy in DC to get it started.
Oregonians are better than that. What others identify as self-reliance is not so solitary or selfish as many suppose. We understand that living off the land is easier when the land we’ve been given is so lush and abundant. We take care of Mother Earth here because we see clearly that She started it.
Dating back to the tradition of the potlatch, people of this land have not found it hard to look forward, especially for the sake of the next generation. Abundance gives us confidence about the future.
It’s not surprising that U.S. Rep Peter DeFazio offered a hard-headed alternative during the health-care coverage debate. He wanted to allow young people to not “opt in” for health care, so long as they signed an affidavit acknowledging their choice and the responsibilities it entails. They would then become ineligible for the traditional emergency room charity care that has too often become the norm in the recent past.
Giving people the option of taking care of themselves is something of a lost art in Washington, D.C., but Oregonians can play a role in reversing that trend. Health care may not be the best place to plant that flag. Higher education funding might be a better arena.
Here’s how we can do Merkley’s concept one better, and fund our children’s higher education in a more self-reliant way. Allow Oregonians to voluntarily forego their annual Child Tax Credit on federal income taxes, choosing instead for the government to invest that thousand dollars each year into a dedicated college fund in that child’s name.
The Oregon College Savings Plan offers a plan that is similar financially, but different psychologically. This modification of Merkley’s plan would allow parents to use money before they’ve ever seen it, investing a credit instead of writing a check.
Paying it forward is a sound concept, but allowing parents to pay it forward for their children in this way is simpler, more honest, and as self-reliant as we know ourselves to be. Not every child will take advantage of their parents’ sacrifices on their behalf, but that’s always been true. If they don’t choose college, they’ll have another way to honor the choices their parents made, by making the same sacrificial choices for their own children.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.