The "Pay It Forward" Plan: A New Form of Indentured Servitude

When the average American college student graduates college they will find themselves more than 27,000 dollars in debt. Over the past two years protests have sprung up at universities across the country in response, with many surviving the implosion of Occupy and becoming even stronger (for example the recent strike at Indiana University). This has led many people realize to realize that our education system is no longer functioning as an equalizer, and a variety of possible solutions have come out of the progressive community. One idea that is gaining a lot of traction right now is the “pay it forward” plan.

The “pay it forward” plan, which has just passed Oregon's state legislature, would provide students with “tuition free” education on the agreement that they pay 3 percent of their post-graduation paychecks for the next 24 years. This is nothing short of indentured servitude. It’s no surprise then that the policy originated from one of the founding fathers of neoliberalism and economic advisor to Augusto Pinochet, Milton Friedman.

The “pay it forward” plan may alleviate some stress of student loan debt, but with the service sector continuing to grow this means many low wage college graduates will be forced to give up three percent of their already low income to the state. Essentially this makes college less desirable for poor and working class students who once saw a college education as a way to improve their lives, but now see that very little can be done with a college degree.


Students protest educational inequality in Puerto Rico.

It also represents an entrenchment of the ideology behind the privatization of education by shifting the responsibility of higher education from the collective on to the consumer. Much like Obamacare, it is a liberal compromise to a problem originating in the economic inequality generated by capitalism and can only be countered with an anti-capitalist analysis that sees the larger systemic issue at hand.

We need an education model that emphasizes social justice and not merely an alteration of the indentured servitude college graduates are already forced into. We need an income adjusted tuition scale. An income adjusted tuition would provide free education to those who need it most, poor and working class students, while exclusively placing the financial burden on those who can afford it, the rich. This would create a system where each student would pay what they could instead of forcing all students to pay the same amount or percentage of income. This system would be more just than many of the tuition-free models of education present throughout the world today because it places the cost solely on those who can afford it and not on the population as a whole through taxes. As the gap between the rich and poor continues to become wider and wider and the number of low paying service jobs continues to increase, income adjusted tuition is becoming the only solution to the problem of accessibility to higher education.

A similar education model already exists today at various universities across Latin America and is not very different from the scholarships given at Ivy League institutions to low income students. Income adjusted tuition has also been a very significant part of the debate currently underway in Puerto Rico since the victory of the student movement in removing a fee last winter, which received support not only from the left but even from the President of the Senate.

University organizing against tuition hikes has taken place on college campuses throughout the country. Three great examples are Cooper Union, Ohio University, and Indiana University. Students at Cooper Union in New York occupied the President’s office for over two months after the board of trustees announced they were considering charging tuition for the first time in 150 years. Similarly in May four members of the Ohio University Student Union were arrested occupying Ohio University’s Board of Trustees meeting in protest of a raise in tuition. In April students at the University of Indiana called for a strike against rising tuition costs and a variety of issues involving inclusion of people of color however the attempt to occupy a building resulted in quickly being pushed out by the police .

While these are all great examples of resistance to tuition hikes, none of them have been able to use them as a catalyst to create a nationwide discussion on an alternative model of education that challenges the neoliberal model of education like students have done in Chile, Quebec, and Puerto Rico. Instead we should look to the growing Undocumented youth movement who have, through a combination of legislative tactics and direct action, managed to get international media attention sparking a national debate on immigration. That debate has begun to move beyond immigration reform to challenge not only the definition of citizenship, but also many of the fundamental principles behind capitalism and the nation state. Similarly, we need to create a model of education that seeks to redefine education itself and empowers students to take control of their lives.

As the “pay it forward” plan continues to gain traction both in progressive circles and state legislatures, the left needs to stand strongly against it and stand for a model of education that makes education an inalienable right of all human beings and challenges the control of capital.

Cruz is a member of Solidarity and a student activist at Ohio State University.

College Student Debt

Excellent article! As an indicator of how horrendous the current situation is, the "indentured servitude" of the 3% "pay it forward" plan would actually be an improvement!! No wonder many liberals are taken in. It's thanks to legislation introduced by John Boehner, Ohio congressman and current House of Representatives Speaker, that student debts cannot be eliminated even through bankruptcy. Who said the Contract on America was dead?

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