The College Classroom Behind Oregon’s Bold Plan For Tuition-Free College

A new plan–which will let students pay back loans at rates determined by how much income they make after college–began as an ambitious school project.

The College Classroom Behind Oregon’s Bold Plan For Tuition-Free College
Student via Shutterstock

On the day federal legislators let student loan interest rates double, Oregon’s legislators passed a bill to make student loans obsolete.


The proposal is really only a tiny, tentative first step in that direction–calling for a committee to decide to create a pilot project–but it’s nonetheless a conjunction of many inspiring rarities: A fresh idea, passed swiftly and unanimously, bringing real progress to increasingly crushing student debt. And it all started, fittingly enough, in a classroom full of debt-ridden college seniors at Portland State University.

The class, called Student Debt: Economics, Policy and Advocacy, took as its starting point a novel policy proposal to scrap up-front tuition and replace it with a flat tax on students’ future earnings. Instead of struggling to escape defaulting on skyrocketing student loans, low-earning graduates would pay a correspondingly low amount, while high-earners would help keep the program solvent.

The class’s task was to turn this concept into something that looked more like policy. “The idea was very unformed, just a lot of numbers,” says Barbara Dudley, a long-time political activist and co-teacher of the PSU class. “We had to start thinking about opting out, opting in, what it would it look like, how many years, would the higher income students be pissed off …”

But while the students sweated the practical details, they weren’t expecting to put them into practice immediately. “We weren’t thinking that they were going to turn anything into legislation,” says Dudley. “You know, maybe they would talk to some legislators.”

Talking to one legislator led to talking to others. Their “final exam” was a panel discussion, where students walked four legislators through the student debt problem and their solution: that each year of full-time schooling corresponds to an additional .75% of a students’ future income, to be garnered for 24 years.

In their presentation, the students introduced themselves by giving their majors and their current debt load. Sarah Johnston: “I’m a political science major and I’ll be graduating with $25,000 in student debt.”


“I think the things that worked were first of all that it was being promoted by the students themselves,” says Dudley. (The essential role of the Oregon Working Families Party, a group Dudley co-founded, is a second.)

Still, the work on what the bill calls “Pay Forward, Pay Back” has only just begun. The legislation’s language was more open-ended than the students’, and now the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission will get to decide how (and if) a pilot project will function, with a requirement to report back to the legislature in 2015.

“We’re already thinking of having an interim legislative hearing in the fall to goose them, frankly,” says Dudley.

It will take continued work from political organizers, and perhaps from the students themselves. Dudley says five or six continued to lobby on the proposal’s behalf after the class ended last December.

“The rest of them are going to school still, and working full-time, and often have children of their own,” she says.

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.