In less than two years, an idea to revamp funding for public higher education has gone from a crazy student proposal to a possible reality in two states.
In February 2012, a group of University of California-Riverside students known as Fix UC presented a radical plan to overhaul funding for the struggling public university system. Instead of relying on grants, scholarships and often loans, students would agree to pay 5 percent of their income for 20 years after graduating or leaving school.
After years of student protests over tuition hikes due to state budget cuts, UC system president Mark Yudof called the idea "appealing," but UC didn't make a move to implement the program. Now two other states are seriously considering adoption of their own versions of delayed-tuition plans for their public colleges.
The Oregon legislature approved a bill earlier this month calling on a state commission to develop a pilot program in which students wouldn't pay a single tuition bill at public colleges until after graduation. After obtaining their degree, graduates would pay 3 percent of their income for a set number of years, likely around 20 to 25 years. Last week, two state lawmakers in Ohio proposed following Oregon's lead with a bill calling for the study of a delayed-tuition plan in the Buckeye State.
A petition hosted by The Nation calls for more states to begin plans to adopt the delayed-tuition model.
Chris LoCascio, president of Fix UC, is thrilled that states have picked up on an idea his group trumpeted as a possible solution to the student debt crisis.
"Eliminating tuition and loans is a game-changing proposition with the potential to drastically change the way we think about higher education," LoCascio told The Huffington Post. "It was always our goal for the model to spread and be adapted for other institutions, and I'm thrilled to see such growing support for it across the country."
Critics have contended the plan punishes success, because as a flat rate, graduates who earn more would pay a larger amount in absolute dollars for their education. But LoCascio said that's more or less the point.
"We found that tying the amount a graduate contributes to what they are making is not only inherently affordable, but would provide universities with the funding they so desperately need," LoCascio said. "For the UC, funding would double over 20 years, which is absolutely unthinkable under the current model."
In the delayed-tuition model, students would elect, essentially, to tax their future earnings to attend a public university. In exchange, they wouldn't need to take out loans to pay tuition bills; and if their public higher education leads to a good-paying job, the cash-starved state colleges would likewise see an increase in funding.
"I'm cautiously supportive of the idea," Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, a frequent critic of higher education spending, said on WVIZ Wednesday, "cautiously, because the devil's in the details."
Vedder said the Ohio proposal was tantamount to students selling stock in themselves. If the graduates do well and succeed, then the state colleges that trained them will gain with them.
Of course, as Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic notes, the cost of room and board, meal plans and books often outweigh the cost of in-state tuition at state universities. But that's only if students choose to live on campus in university-owned apartments and purchase new books at the campus book store. If students go off campus and order used books online, those costs can be significantly lower in most cities that are home to state universities.
The delayed-tuition plan could change how enrolled students view the cost of college if their largest financial obligations are their study materials, meals and a manageable monthly rent, which is why campuses in other states are taking notice.
"The intense interest being shown by groups and state legislatures is a testament to just how promising the Fix UC model is and how real the need is for permanent, long-term solutions to the problems facing higher education today," LoCascio said. "As more states take steps toward implementing the model, the closer we get toward a positive step forward for students, families, institutions, states and the economy."