08/28/2013 05:52 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Higher Education Bills Offer Hope in Pennsylvania

Finally, the soaring costs of high education is getting the attention it deserves from politicians. President Obama vowed to shake up higher education during his recent bus trip to New York and Pennsylvania. The Oregon legislature recently passed unanimously a bill, "Pay it Forward," which authorized a pilot program allowing students to attend Oregon public universities tuition-free in return for paying 3 percent of their post- graduation earnings back to the state.

Two Philadelphia-area legislators, State Representative Brendan Boyle (D-Northeast Philadelphia) and State Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/ Delaware) are racing to copy the innovative idea, albeit taking different approaches. Both are rising stars in the Democratic party who are running for Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz's seat.

Boyle plans to introduce a bill that mirrors the Oregon bill. His legislation would authorize a committee to study the costs and feasibility of implementing a pilot program based on the Oregon "Pay It Forward." His plan is to replace traditional sources of tuition funding, such as parents, scholarships, loans and wages, with a dedicated fund derived from mandatory payments of participating students starting after their graduation.

Boyle explained why his proposal did not offer a concrete plan rather than a proposal to study the issue. He said, "The 'Pay It Forward' bill passed the Oregon legislature unanimously. I am being pragmatic. I want to propose legislation that will pass."

Boyle comes by his interest in higher education honestly.

"I am probably the only public official that still had $60,000 in student loan debt," said Boyle, who went to Notre Dame on an academic scholarship and then received a master's degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "I have been a leader on higher education issues since I was elected to the House five years ago. I introduced the bill for the REACH Scholarships to help academically gifted students in the state. It was modeled after the HOPE scholarship program in Georgia."

Leach, who is working with State Representative Mark Longietti (D-Mercer) on the House side, took the opposite approach when writing his bill, which outlines a plan to implement the free tuition program.

"We don't feel a need to study the issue," said Leach's chief of staff, Zachary Hoover. "We think it is such a good idea that it should be implemented immediately."

Leach's proposal initially calls for an extraction tax on Marcellus Shale, the state's reserve of natural gas, to establish the fund. He expects the fund to be self-sustaining after 15 years.

"Students will be able to borrow from the fund to pay for their tuition interest free," Leach said. "It will not be a case of them borrowing $100,000, and owing $150,000 because of the interest they racked up."

Once they start working, those that borrowed will have their wages garnished by 4 percent a year until they repay the loan. Leach named his bill "Pay it Forward, Pay it Back" to emphasize the repayment obligation.

"For those that do not find a job, their loans will not be in default," Leach said. "The loan proceeds will be repaid by an insurance policy that they took out when they originally borrowed the loan. If the loan is for $100,000, they will borrow $110,000. $10,000 will be used to buy an insurance policy."

He argues that with only 43 percent of the state's citizens completing post-secondary school education, the state vitally needs an overhaul of its higher education system so its citizens will have the skills to work in this economy and jobs don't need to be sent overseas.

For those that ask why they should care about high education costs when they don't have children, Boyle has a ready answer.

"The indebtedness of our young people affects the economy, particularly industries such as real estate," he said. "Young people are delaying purchasing home because of their large student loans. A local real estate agent told me that he used to see people in their mid to late twenties buying home, now they wait until they are in their mid-thirties."