payitforwardAmerica’s status as a world power has emerged side by side with the expansion of public education. From 1910 to 1940, the U.S. led the world in the expansion of universal, publicly-funded secondary schools. Following the growth of public high school, the percentage of Americans with a high school degree went from less than 25 percent in 1940 to almost 90 percent today.

Post-secondary education also saw a major expansion in this period, notably with veterans from World War II and Vietnam who attended college using the G.I. bill. Even so, a hard-working high school graduate could still find a way into the middle class through plentiful manufacturing jobs with good wages and benefits. But today, American manufacturing has become heavily automated, requiring fewer workers with more advanced skills

Complete College America estimates that to meet projected demand in 2020, we need to double the percentage of Oklahoma workers with college certificates or degrees. Post-secondary education has become as essential to new generations as high school was to our parents and grandparents.

Yet even as its importance grows, college is becoming less affordable. The cost of tuition has risen 1,120 percent since 1978, an increase four times greater than inflation. Oklahoma’s leading public universities remain relatively affordable, but they too have hiked tuition in recent years to compensate for declining state funding.

Need-based scholarships and student loans are imperfect solutions to a basic mismatch – Americans need college education to get a well-paying job, but they must pay before they can earn the income that allows them to afford it. For many young Americans from poorer families who can’t rely on support from their parents, it’s a Catch-22.

“Pay It Forward,” a new model for tuition being developed in Washington state, offers a way out of the trap. From the Economic Opportunity Institute:

Under Pay It Forward, students pay no upfront tuition fees to attend college. Instead, they pay a small percentage of their adjusted gross income (AGI) for a number of years after college: 0.75% per year of community college, or 1% per year of university, for 25 years. Payments are placed in a trust fund that covers the cost for future students to receive the same opportunity to attend college with no tuition fees – hence, “Pay It Forward”.

So for example, a student could attend four years at a university, paying nothing upfront, and then contribute four percent of her income for 25 years after graduating. Or someone could attend two years of community collage and pay 1.5 percent of his income.

Besides making college more accessible to everyone, the Pay It Forward system would prevent payments from exceeding ability to pay, and it would empower graduates to pursue the work best suited to their passions and skills – for example, a career in teaching or non-profits would no longer be prohibited by the need to pay off large student loan bills.

Pay It Forward would require a start-up investment as the first graduates go through the system. While that may not be feasible all-at-once statewide, it could be done by converting existing scholarship funds on pilot campuses. Contributions would build over time, enabling colleges to expand to an ever larger number of students.

Another option is to implement Pay It Forward for the most needed career tracks. For example, we could combat Oklahoma’s looming physician shortage by moving medical schools to the Pay It Forward model.

The United States’ prosperity in the 20th Century rested on a foundation of broadly accessible, high-quality education. But with the global economy becoming more competitive, we can’t be complacent. Pay It Forward could help carry this tradition into the next century.