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Oregon Students Fight Back Against Debt, And Win

Oregon’s legislature unanimously passed a debt-free higher education plan after Portland State students brought it to their attention.

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But start-up money would be needed at the outset to jumpstart the policy. As luck would have it, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler was concurrently pushing a proposal called the Oregon Opportunity Initiative. This would employ bonds to provide grants for low-income college students, using the financial instrument to allow for government investment in human infrastructure in addition to physical infrastructure. With that in place, the Treasurer could also float bonds to kickstart the Pay It Forward program, and eventually pay off the bonds as more and more students enter the system.

Dudley presented the Pay It Forward plan to her students, and they loved it. “It has great potential, especially when we’re facing such rising inequality,” Ariel Gruver said. “I know many people who want to go to school, but taking out loans is just not a viable option.”

The class enlisted the Oregon Center for Public Policy to help run the numbers, and brought in several speakers from the governor’s office and the state legislature to hear about the plan. One of them was Rep. Michael Dembrow, the chair of the House Higher Education Committee. He and his colleagues were increasingly aware of the explosion of student debt—“we were hearing it on the doorstep, in town halls,” he told AlterNet—and he wanted to advance legislation to creatively attack the problem. Dembrow proposed that at the end of the quarter the students present their findings and recommendations to a panel of legislators. This presentation became the final exam for the course.

After that, things moved swiftly. The Working Families Party put Pay It Forward at the top of their legislative agenda and began to buttonhole legislators of both parties. Dembrow held hearings on the plan and picked up a bipartisan group of sponsors. “At the first hearing,” says Dembrow, “when the guy from the Economic Opportunity Institute [John Burbank] said the plan derived from the work of Milton Friedman, suddenly the Republicans became more interested.”

After the class ended, the students became activists. They convinced Treasurer Ted Wheeler that his bonding proposal could be used to generate startup costs for Pay It Forward. Then students went to Salem to lobby the legislature. “It was almost surreal, from a student report, to go into lobbying,” said Tracy Gibbs, a class member. “In the first few meetings I just took a lot of notes, but I gained more confidence and it was really fun.”

Other students gave public presentations in their communities to build popular support. Ariel Gruver held one at Portland State with U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley. Speaking about the Pay It Forward plan, Merkley told AlterNet, “This bill is a terrific Oregon-born innovation. We must explore creative ways to make it affordable and realistic for all Americans to attend college.”

Dembrow believes the student advocacy was critical to the bill’s success. “That’s always the best form of advocacy, bringing it to a human level,” he said. “And it was very effective in this case.”

In the end, the bill passed unanimously out of the House and Senate, just nine months after the capstone course began. Governor John Kitzhaber plans to sign it. “I’m an inveterate optimist, so I thought it could pass but I thought it would take a few years,” Dudley remarked. “The stars really aligned on this bill.”

But there’s still a long way to go. The bill instructs the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission to create a pilot program, which could begin at one state community college and one four-year school. Before it can go into effect the legislature must approve the HECC’s proposed pilot in 2015. Meanwhile, Treasurer Wheeler’s plan to issue bonds for human infrastructure, the key initial funding source for the bill, requires a constitutional amendment. That amendment passed the legislature this year, but will need to go before voters in November 2014 for final passage. Supporters are looking forward to the public debate, emphasizing the attractive opportunity of free higher education as a societal good and an economic engine. Dudley even envisions the bonds as “something you sell in the grocery store, like war bonds, something to help the community.”

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