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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

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • dust truck

    “since there’s universal agreement that America’s ladder out of poverty is missing its bottom rungs”

    Bottom rungs? How about every rung. Haven’t you heard of the war on the middle class?

  • Charlie O.

    “Nation at Risk” was a completely b.s. thing! It didn’t take into account many variables which should have been, so it looked a lot worse than it was. It missed out on the fact that women and minorities were getting educations(subsequently some dropping out for various reasons), so of course the graduation rate and other things were going to look worse. It was a terrible study that was subjectively done to try and prove a point.

    Unfortunately, even with more objective studies over the past 30 years, we’re still not doing well in the world. We decided to be fat and happy at the top for awhile, rather than work to figure out how to stay there. We are far too reactionary a society and the cost of going to college is becoming too much. Just another way to keep the middle class and lower class from attaining anything because the upper class wants it all. The problem isn’t tuition, that is regulated by states. THE PROBLEM IS THE FEES THAT SCHOOLS CAN ASSESS! They are how the school makes its money, and are what is causing people to not be able to afford to go.

  • sjw81

    great column and idea. we must do something like this. or else we will never recover and move economy forward

  • Guest

    Barlow is too head in the clouds academic and esoteric and tends to confuse and is in the wrong arena if he wants to report about a hot political issue.
    Too many links to things he should just sum up and he needs to pare down and simplify for a simple reading audience.
    If he wants compliments on how intelligent he is, I will give him one. So there.
    http://www.studentdebtanonymous.blogspot.com

  • PeterBoyle

    Pay It Forward is a good idea, and will work in the long run. Charter Schools, however, are not a viable option. Those schools have been found to missreport their acheivments, and have been a never ending cash cow for their owners. Teach For America is, likewise, under some scrutiny for numerous problems. The K – 12 education needs help, but the start is in paying good teachers well. It seems that the Teachers are bearing the burden for the problems when top heavy, highly paid, administrators and poor contracting choices are more to blame for the hemorraging of money. Get the government out of the way and let teachers teach. Rating teachers is not as good as clearing the myriad of rules that hinder their ability to teach, and certainly not as good as providing the tools they need to teach effectively. Before the economic crash no one entered teaching because it was a good paying job. Now, it is one of the better paying jobs left in the US, and people are flocking to teaching as a way to survive instead of because it is an honorable and productive way to live.

  • Kevin Drake

    Just to give you a frame of reference. I pay 1,200 a month in student loans. I graduated with almost 120K in debt because I wanted a good education and worked hard to achieve over a 3.5 GPA. I have a good job now, got promoted after 2 years, but with over 2500 in bills a month I still have to rely on my parents to help out so I can stay afloat. Half of those loans have over a 7% interest rate. If I got an MBA now I could further advance my career, but with that many student loans already its not even a remote possibility.

  • iq110

    i think the educationalsystem is all mixed up k-12 they should teach you how to survive once the groundwork like reading writeing and basic arithmatic has been learned and covered so completely it can be done in ones sleep. then you bring in classes like ethics to include building good work ethic,economics not home economics but actual economics where you learn the ins and outs of money makeing and business like keeping ledgers, bugeting and responsible spending, social and communication skills classes, take out science and art to be saved for college because primary school science and art are lost on those who dont get work in those fields. bring back drivers ed and pre licenseing courses. set the kids up to be prepared to survive first then teach them selective career courses like science,art,home ec for college

  • marie.c

    I took out student loan 23 years ago and I am still paying for it today.the problem is the school shut down and they kept the money,I have tried to get it forgiven they won’t allow it.I’m disabled barley have enough to live on and they want to take out more money.I don’t have any more faith in our government.they only want to take down the poor

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