State Sen. Frerichs introduces a bill to explore paying for college without upfront tuition

State Sen. Michael Frerichs, D-52, introduced a bill to the Illinois Senate on Feb. 14 which could eventually revolutionize the way that students pay for college.

Under Senate Bill 3451, the Illinois Board of Higher Education will create the Pay it Forward, Pay it Back pilot program which will select one public Illinois school for a test run. The program would allow all undergraduate in-state students at the selected university to receive full funding for tuition and fees, room and board, and books and supplies. In exchange, the students will pay back the university with a percentage of their income once they become employed.

The bill is co-sponsored by State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-4, who said she was attracted to the bill because it provides an opportunity for students to pay for higher education without having to pay for tuition upfront.

“Senator Frerichs has done a fine job of identifying a creative way or option to assist more students,” she said.

Frerichs said the bill is a result of a series of public hearings around the state centered on college affordability. The bill unanimously passed the Illinois Senate Committee on Higher Education last month and is now on the Senate floor.

Many of the details of this bill are not yet finalized. Frerichs said that he and collaborators are still working out where to find the funding for this project, what school would be selected for the test run and how long the test run would last.

Frerichs said despite the challenges, he feels that the program, if successful, could have a positive effect on university students.

“For many students out there, it can be transformative,” Frerichs said. “For many students, they are looking at a defined amount of debt they would acquire, and be obligated to for the rest of their lives, and might be discouraged. Now, this would give them the option of paying a percentage of their income.”

Former students will start payments to the university upon employment, though payments cannot begin any later than ten years after graduation. The senator also commented that if the bill is passed, he felt graduates who go into low-paying fields won’t feel as much pressure to make college payments, while graduates in high-paying jobs won’t mind paying back the institution that gave them an educational advantage.

Frerichs also said that if the program goes well, it could eventually affect the University of Illinois, as well as all other public universities in the state.

Jennifer Delaney, assistant professor in the University’s College of Education, discussed the educational background of the Pay it Forward, Pay it Back concept.

According to Delaney, the roots of the concept for this bill started as a class project at Portland State University. Students examined the educational system in Australia, and wrote a proposal about the concept.

The Australian higher education system uses the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, which is income contingent. There is no required upfront tuition; depending on what program a student is enrolled in, the student will pay for his or her education through a higher tax rate after graduation and upon entering the workforce.

A policy think tank in Oregon picked up the idea, and since then they have been promoting the idea most recently. 

Delaney added that the United States does in fact have an income contingent program; however students need to know about the program in order to participate in it and it isn’t the norm, unlike in Australia.

Jason Nwosu, member of the Student Advisory Committee to the Illinois Board of Higher Education and sophomore at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill., expressed support for the concept.

“When I hear it, I think that is a great idea,” Nwosu said. “Especially being able to have immediate access to undergraduate education. And then once you’re able to gain successful employment, paying it back.”

However, Nwosu also questioned the financial workings of the program, specifically if the graduates find themselves unemployed.

Candace Mueller, assistant director for external relations at the Illinois Board of Higher Education, voiced concerns over the original funding source for the pilot program.

“It’s a fair statement to make that the discussions are still works in progress,” Mueller said. “There’s really just no available upfront money in the state right now, for this kind of a program.”

Speaking specifically about the bill, Delaney said she felt there were a lot of details that still needed to be considered, but she felt the bill could move forward.

“It really has caught the attention of policy makers across the country.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected]