SEATTLE – One year ago this week, a unique idea for sending people to college without student loans was embraced by the Oregon Legislature. The “Pay It Forward” plan was created here in Washington, and has piqued interest around the nation as policymakers look for ways to make higher education more affordable and reduce student debt.

Instead of paying tuition in advance, said John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, students agrees to pay a small percentage of their income after graduation for a fixed number of years into a fund so that other students also can go to college debt-free.

“From our point of view, creating that access for the next generation of students is very important,” he said, “and we believe that through Pay It Forward, we can build a community of intergenerational responsibility and inter-generational rights to higher education.”

Oregon lawmakers liked the idea well enough to pass it unanimously and form a workgroup that is creating recommendations for a pilot program. They’ll be presented to that state’s Legislature in September. Burbank said proponents will try again next year to make headway in the Washington Legislature.

Sami Alloy, a member of Oregon’s Pay it Forward Workgroup, said deciding on all the details of how a whole new system of college funding could work has been complex and challenging – but also exciting. 

“We’ve seen so many students, and parents and grandparents so interested in the passage of this proposal,” she said. “And we’ve seen a lot of grassroots advocacy from families all over the state to our legislators, to get this proposal moving on the ground.”

According to the Economic Opportunity Institute, seven out of 10 college students graduate with debt that averages almost $30,000. So far, 25 states are taking a closer look at the “Pay It Forward” model.