Yay for the land of the free (tuition)

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Do you like paying thousands of dollars for college?

Though many teachers from kindergarten to graduate school have told me that there is no such thing as a stupid question, I’m confident in calling the above a rather stupid question. Of course you don’t like paying for college. If students, no matter how rich or poor they or their parents are, are offered a “graduate from college free” coupon, they’d surely snatch it up faster than free food at a party.

Well, Michigan students may soon be able to score that deal with a fine-line catch. Lawmakers in the frigid state are working on a hot proposal, called the “pay-it-forward” tuition plan, which would require students to pay a fixed percentage — 2 percent for community college students and 4 percent for other institutions — of their post-graduate income for five years for each year they utilized the program. So, if a student — let’s call her Elle Woods — graduated after four years from the University of Michigan, she’d owe 4 percent of her monthly paycheck to the program for 20 years.

Then comes the part that really excites me. Elle’s money wouldn’t just disappear into the atmosphere, eaten up by some anonymous government program; she’d pay it forward to other students, essentially becoming a scholarship donor so that other eager teens and 20-somethings will have a more affordable tuition bill.

More than 20 states are considering similar proposals but Michigan would be the first to set up a pilot program. Legislation there would establish a $2 million start-up for 200 students to try it out, while the Treasury Department would be charged with tracking the money and verifying participants’ income.

Michigan State Representative David Knezek told the Detroit Free Press, “The goal is to remove every financial barrier to high education … This is a no-interest plan that allows you to pay back as you go and as you can afford it.

It takes the monkey off the student’s back.”

I agree that it’s a decent plan, but that’s a wildly optimistic statement. Knezek is clearly a well-trained politician, making the plan sound as easy and breezy as CoverGirl, which isn’t quite the case. Any percentage coming out of a students’ well-earned paycheck is still, well, money coming out of their paycheck; it’s a financial blow. Though, perhaps it will be more of a light manageable wind, better than a full hurricane gust that comes along with high interest from traditional college loans.

The biggest concern of pay-it-forward’s critics is that students who make more will pay more. If Elle were to make $45,000 — the average starting salary for 2013 graduates with bachelor’s degrees, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers — she’d pay $1,800 that year. But if Elle’s classmate were to score an incredible job earning a big fat $80,000 paycheck, he or she would have to fork up $3,200 a year.
Besides merely seeming unfair, critics argue that the plan could result in high-earning participants eventually paying more than their tuition’s worth. Multi-millionaires could essentially become multi-tuition payers.
Susan M. Dynarski, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, sounded like many Republicans complaining about the rich paying higher taxes, when she said, “There is therefore cross-subsidization in this system, with the ‘winners’ paying some of the college costs of the ‘losers.’”

But is that really a valid argument? If I had a gavel with me, I’d bang it on my desk and passionately declare, “No.” All students, from those at Harvard Law School to community college, work hard. There are no losers in caps and gowns. If a student scores the paycheck jackpot, I’m far from sympathetic over their supposed hardships of having to pay more. Wealthy graduates of the pay-it-forward program should be grateful to have attended college; in fact, they will owe a large — perhaps even integral — part of their successes to their degrees. They should pay it forward happily and humbly, eager to help build up the workforce of feature generations.

Other critics argue that this plan, and others like it, are only temporary fixes akin to putting a cast on a broken bone rather than working to prevent the injury in the first place. Students, they say, shouldn’t need plans to finance their tuitions; tuition should simply be lower for everyone.

It’s hard to argue with that point, so I won’t. I absolutely agree that the cost of higher education desperately needs to be lowered. But, as much as I would love my next NSU tuition bill to be $20 or even $2,000, that won’t happen overnight. Telling the class of 2018 that tuition will be much cheaper in 5, 10 or 15 years isn’t helpful to them in the least. So, while lawmakers and university higher-ups continue to work tirelessly on lowering costs across the board, students of today should reap the benefits of plans like Michigan’s. Pay-it-forward will allow students to move forward into their futures.

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