You may have heard some rumblings from south of the border over the past few months with respect to a program called Pay It Forward (PIF). The brainchild of a student group called Students for Educational Debt Reform, this idea was picked up by the Oregon assembly last summer; within a few months, over a dozen state governments were examining similar draft legislation.
The basics of the program are these: instead of paying tuition, students agree to pay a percentage of their future income (the percentages vary by state – in Oregon it’s 0.75% per year of study) for 20 years after graduation. Some people mistook this for a version of income-contingent loans because it emphasized paying for school after-the-fact rather than up-front, and also because repayments were to be made as a function of income. But there’s one key difference. Loans have a limited liability: once you pay off the principal and interest, you’re done. With PIF, there is no principal – once you start paying into a hypothecated fund, destined for the state’s higher education institutions, you keep on paying for 20 years no matter what. This is formally known as a “graduate tax”.
Graduate taxes tend to be more progressive than income-contingent loans. If you’re at the bottom of the income scale, you probably come out better off – you simply never pay anything. If you’re at the top of the income scale, you’re likely going to pay a lot more because a portion of your income will go into public coffers long after you’d likely have paid off a loan. Interestingly, the famous Yale Tuition Postponement Option of the early 1970s (designed by Nobellist James Tobin, and used by Bill Clinton when he attended law school there) went off the rails for precisely this reason – the richer students got tired of paying for the poorer ones, and started making a fuss.
One downside to a graduate tax is that it’s harder to collect than a loan. In the US, for instance, it’s hard to imagine enforcing something like PIF, unless it was instituted nationally (if someone moved from Portland to Chicago, would Illinois be responsible for collecting the PIF contribution?). A graduate tax was in fact examined relatively thoroughly not once but twice in England (the 1997 Dearing Report and the 2005 fee reform), and was rejected precisely because of concerns about grads evading repayment through emigration.
Another downside is: where exactly does the money come from while you’re waiting for graduates to start earning money? If tuition is covering 40% of institutional expenditure, someone has to make that income good over the 20 or so years before the grad tax makes up the difference. It’s not clear who that might be; if the state had money to do this, it probably wouldn’t be faffing around with ideas like PIF. You could securitize the revenue stream, of course, but that also might get tricky. Income-contingent loans lack graduate taxes’ most potentially progressive features, but they do have the advantage of: a) being collectable, and b) producing income for institutions in the short term.
There is of course one country that is trying very hard to merge the ideas of ICR and graduate taxes, with some really odd results. More on the English experiment tomorrow.