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An idea and a question

So. The thing about this Oregon Pay-It-Forward business is that it seems like one of those ideas whose major flaw is that it doesn’t work.

The idea, in its basic form, is that instead of charging up-front tuition, the public universities in Oregon would contract with students for a tithe—the numbers being bruited about are 3% for 25 years, but that’s just to give people an opportunity to use the word bruited. Some percentage of the income for some number of years post graduation, anyway.

Is it a good idea? Well, it’s seems progressive, on the face of it—it takes from the alumni based on the ability to pay, after all. And the wealthy would pay the biggest share. On the other hand, I don’t really see why you wouldn’t just institute a progressive state income tax and heavily subsidize tuition, as used to be the case a generation ago. On the other other hand, if it really is politically impossible to raise the money through a properly progressive tax, isn’t this better than having the current untenable situation where students graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in federally guaranteed, non-dischargeable debt?

So many, many problems, though. I mean first of all, they have to come up with the money to keep the places running during the first four years while the first cohorts eat the state out of house and proverbial without paying anything up front, and then the money to keep the places running while the first cohorts take crappy jobs and live in crappy apartments with their books in milk crates. If the students aren’t investing up-front, the state will be investing hugely up-front, and that money comes from…bonds? Whatever it is, it seems absolutely prohibitive to me, way more so than just raising state revenues to bring down tuition would be.

And then all the myriad problems of collecting the money, and how that would work, and how that would affect alumni relations—can you imagine calling a really wealthy alum in her 20th reunion year, and saying I know you have paid us a quarter of a million dollars over the last five years and it looks like you’re having a great year this year with an income of five million dollars—so in addition to the hundred and fifty thousand you are contractually obligated to pay us, how about endowing a new dorm?

And there’s the conceptual problem that the AFT has been on about—this concretizes the idea that the State University System is not a Good Thing for the State but only a Good Thing for the Students, and even then only insofar as it makes them money in the long run. If people who don’t attend the public university don’t have to pay anything at all toward its upkeep, then I’m not sure how public they will remain.

Anyway. All of this is prompting me to ask a question that has been on my mind for a while: I have a vague recollection that when I graduated college in 1991, the Mendoza Line for salary was $25,000 a year. That is, if you were a new-minted college grad making less than $25K, it was because you for whatever reason were taking a crappy job—you were taking your pay in experience or contacts, or you were working in the arts or the so-called non-profit world in order to do good with your life, or some such thing. I don’t have records of conversations from that time, so I don’t really know if that’s accurate. Do any of you Gentle Readers remember? Was it actually $20K? I’m asking because I’m curious if that number has kept up with inflation—I think I know the current Mendoza Line, more or less, but maybe I’m remembering the nineties wrong.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Dean Dad (Matt Reed, blogs at Inside Higher Ed) wrote this column called, No, Don't Pay It Forward. (http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/confessions-community-college-dean/no-don%E2%80%99t-pay-it-forward)

The best arguments against this plan from him focus on the fact that the front pay-out by the state simply is NOT going to happen and that this would enable the state to phase out their contribution, leaving the burden on the students entirely. As an administrator, I think he also has a brilliant perspective on what it would be like to allocate budgets (whose students bring in the big bucks?).

The logistics of administering this would be overwhelming as well--what about part-timers, grad students, etc. etc.

This is a bad idea. But I think that the important thing is SOMEONE start talking about how to finance an education since almost no one can do it these days, and certainly not alone. I'm liking a suggested tax on financial services (as funding colleges, not necessarily as a raw revenue booster). I'd like to see us taking responsibility as a whole nation (as opposed to our state by state option).

A couple years back, I read a dystopia called The Unincorporated Man that took this premise to its extreme. It was interesting.

Personally, I'd like to be able to pay my loans off in advance. Can I tithe 6% for 13 years instead? 9% for 9 years instead? Our current student loans have protections so we can pay them off in advance, so that I could e.g. pay off my own college education before I had to start saving for my children's. Not that I'm planning on even trying to save for my (hypothetical, future) children's college at this point, because I can't imagine how any sum of money I could set aside could make any difference at all.

As a vague data point on salary -- I graduated in 1994 and took a non-profit job (the Albert Schweitzer Institute for the Humanities), which paid $17,000. I think that was pretty low, though. But I got to meet Bishop Tutu and Mikhail Gorbachev and other interesting figures, so it worked out.

Unfortunately I have nothing useful to contribute on how to finance education. My daughter will be college-age in 9 years .

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