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Education

Oregon may have solved the student loan crisis. Rich Barlow says if President Barack Obama is smart, he'll take the "Pay It Forward" plan and run with it. In this May 31, 2013, file photo, the president, joined by college students, discusses student loans. (Susan Walsh/AP)

This year and last marked epic anniversaries in education. 2012 saw the sesquicentennial of the 1862 Land-Grant College Act, which donated federal lands creating public universities to educate especially the “sons of toil,” as the law’s congressional sponsor memorialized the working class. This year is the 30th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, the federal cri de coeur about the sorry state of American elementary and secondary schools.

[Oregon’s “Pay It Forward” plan makes] public colleges free to students who will repay the state, via a modest paycheck garnish over 20-plus years, once they’re graduated and employed.

These landmarks make a stereophonic reminder of unfinished business: College costs too much for today’s sons and daughters of toil, many of whose kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools ill-prepare them for college anyway. Since a university degree boosts job prospects and earnings, and since there’s universal agreement that America’s ladder out of poverty is missing its bottom rungs, fixing this fray in the social safety net is essential.

Starting with the cost problem: God bless Oregon.

To applause smattered with brickbats — some constructive, some philosophically constipated — the Beaver State passed a “Pay It Forward” plan, making its public colleges free to students who will repay the state, via a modest paycheck garnish over 20-plus years, once they’re graduated and employed. If President Obama picks up this baton, it could polish his legacy the way land grant colleges did Abraham Lincoln’s.

Critics say Oregon’s scheme continues states’ miserliness towards higher education, shifting onto workers what is properly a taxpayer obligation. Given state budget cuts induced by the Great Recession, we could argue the point forever, while needy students languish. Pay It Forward moves off that dime, and anyway, modestly dunning workers for an invaluable college education doesn’t seem unreasonable. Nor does the higher payback to be shouldered by investment bankers, engineers, and other higher-earning graduates, another objection some raise.

More serious is the observation that Oregon’s plan only helps with tuition, ignoring daunting room and board costs. That’s why it’s essential that Congress cover the deficit facing the federal Pell Grant program for low-income college students. Another legitimate concern is how Oregon will pay for Pay It Forward, especially during the start-up phase before anyone graduates and begins reimbursing the state. So Oregon is proceeding with a limited pilot program, and one expert says tweaking the plan would make the state’s costs more manageable.

If President Obama picks up this baton, it could polish his legacy the way land grant colleges did Abraham Lincoln’s.

Here’s where Obama can help. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley is readying a proposal for federal aid to help states pay the costs of adopting Pay It Forward plans. The president should run with this idea, as money is desperately needed already at community colleges and less selective public universities, heirs to the mission of educating the children of toil. Meager resources for course offerings and student support services at non-elite four-year schools fuel skyrocketing dropout rates.

Don’t say Uncle Sam can’t afford such aid; merely scrapping tax breaks for those who don’t need them would free up gobs of money. If we can also shift money from less essential higher ed spending, better still.

For all the concerns about Pay It Forward, it has had a real-life road-test for a generation in Australia. Three percent of working-age Australians had a college degree in the mid-1970s; it’s 25 percent today and expected to hit 40 percent in a dozen years.

The system’s costs are an issue down under, though Oregon’s differing version would address some of that, says one researcher, adding, “There is no such thing as student loan default in Australia.” (In this country, “I saw Jesus walking down the street” sounds equally miraculous.)

Still, as a New York Times economic columnist noted, no college reform will rescue disadvantaged students whose poor preparation for college, at lousy K-12 schools, has them dropping out in droves from community colleges.

But again, we have some idea of what works at quality elementary and secondary schools. Letting principals and their staffs hire teachers and design their curriculums and school day — cutting out administrative middlemen in the superintendent’s office — has worked at high-performing public schools, Catholic schools, and charter schools. Charters’ record is mixed, but Boston and New York show they work when done right; a Stanford study rated Beantown’s the best of the breed nationally, and New York’s as clearly outperforming the city’s other public schools.

“There is no such thing as student loan default in Australia.” (In this country, “I saw Jesus walking down the street” sounds equally miraculous.)

New Orleans, partly by funneling most of its public school students into charters, staged an astonishing educational turnaround. The Big Easy offers a final lesson: Above all else, good teachers make good schools. The city taps Teach for America and other alternatives to traditional teacher training. And since you get what you pay for — per-pupil spending is up in New Orleans — and since we rely on property taxes to pay for public education, states (or the feds, if states won’t) must help property-poor communities pay decent teacher salaries.

Free college tuition and better college prep make an ambitious agenda. So was the Land-Grant Act, signed by Lincoln after his predecessor, James Buchanan, vetoed it as an unconstitutional giveaway. The blinkered Buchanan belly-flopped in the pool of history’s estimation. That’s a lesson political leaders should remember.

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Tags: Barack Obama, History, Innovation

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