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A progressive way to college affordability

by Mike McFeely

The cost of a college education is a common topic on my radio program. And the discussion never centers on how affordable higher education is becoming. No, it's all about how expensive college has become and the question is always this one: How can anybody but the upper middle class and upper class can afford it?

Oregon's progressive legislature has come up with an excellent idea. 

Free tuition.

"Essentially what it does is allows you to not carry a debt load. It's not a debt that you graduate with -- your debt-to-credit ratio is not mucked up and and you can participate in the economy, which is a novel thought." 

Well, not really. It's more like a pay-it-forward program that allows students to pay no tuition while they attend a public university or community college, and then pay back the state with a percentage of their income after graduation.

The basic idea is brilliant. Students who qualify for and are interested in a public university education can attend college regardless of financial situation (this is tuition only, by the way, not books, food, room or anything else). It also removes the debut burden students have when they graduate. And, the state still gets its money back. Graduates will be required to pay back a percentage of their income for 20 years after graduation. The percentage would be 3% for four-year graduates, 1.5% for community college graduates.

The devil is in the details, like always, but Oregon is taking a very progressive step forward. The state will develop a pilot program and lawmakers will decide in 2015 whether or not to implement it.

According to ABC News, Portland state University political science professor Barbara Dudley said: "Essentially what it does is allows you to not carry a debt load. It's not a debt that you graduate with -- your debt-to-credit ratio is not mucked up and and you can participate in the economy, which is a novel thought."

Here is the entire ABC News article. 

Oregon's constitution requires a balanced budget, so this program's expenses cannot be allowed to negatively impact the state budget.

Could this work in North Dakota, Minnesota or South Dakota? Why not? Particularly if you're speaking of North Dakota, the U.S.'s oil capitol with billions in the bank. Minnesota's and South Dakota's budgets are much tighter, and given South Dakota's political makeup it is unlikely the Republican super-majority legislature would even consider such a forward-thinking idea.

But progressive-thinking Minnesota should keep an eye on Oregon. We know college graduates make more money over the course of their careers and, therefore, pay more in income taxes over the course of their careers. It would behoove Minnesota to think long-term and consider "free tuition." I've always been a strong advocate that a good education shouldn't be dependent on your family's income; it should be dependent on your willingness to attend college and work to graduate. A program like Oregon's would assure that anybody who wanted to get an education could get one.

And, oh by the way, the pay-back program would work as an incentive to stay in school and get a job immediately afterward.

Should North Dakota do this? It should, but won't. Again, the political landscape is such that conservatives in Bismarck are more worried about waging war on higher education and getting control of the system than actually educating the citizens of the state.

The average college loan debt from the class of 2013 was $35,200, according to the ABC story. Which is why this topic arises so often on my show.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)