Two thoughts on Oregon’s Pay It Forward tuition experiment

I am not entirely sure what I think about the Pay It Forward approach to tuition for public higher education in the U.S., but I do think that the Oregon legislature passing a bill to study the idea is a a welcome spark of creativity in the ongoing debate about costs and affordability.

At first look, I am drawn to the idea for its apparent progressiveness, but it is hard to say how well, or how progressively, Pay It Forward, as proposed here, would actually work in practice. If the proposed study is well crafted and executed, and a solid pilot is recommended and launched, there should be answers to these questions in the next couple of years and perhaps some meaningful action on at least college affordability as a result, whether in the form of Pay It Forward or some other approach that might emerge from the discussion being started here in Oregon.

However, I do have two more specific thoughts on the early debate over the idea.

First, I am singularly unpersuaded by one of the central arguments being made against the concept of Pay It Forward, namely, that the approach is either unfair to or a disincentive for students intending to, and who do, enter high-paying jobs or professions after college.

Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, sums up this argument in a Time Business article by Martha C. White, “‘It’s a real moral hazard problem,’ she says. ‘If you have no intention of doing anything other than staying home with your kids, this is great for you. If you think you’re going to be an investment banker, you’re going to think really hard,’ and might decide not to participate with ‘Pay It Forward’ or attend a state school.” At The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann, calls this the, “engineer problem.”

Baum’s invocation of “moral hazard”, suggests that, on one level, this is an argument about the ethics and politics of “redistributive” social policies. Where one stands on this question depends on one’s political commitments and vision of a just society. Some people will insist on seeing Pay It Forward as a system that punishes the rich, who are, implicitly, hardworking, and rewards the poor, who are, implicitly, lazy. Comparing a stay-at-home spouse to an investment banker is a framing that seems deliberately designed to make this point.

Writing as a professor, I’m thrilled by the prospect of the odd student who is not fixated on what job they’ll get after graduation. Presumably, that individual is seeking a college degree to be a more fulfilled human being, citizen and member of society and not just because they’ve been told, repeatedly, that higher education is necessary to securing, “a good job.” If it takes a few investment bankers – or a few more university professors – to subsidize that person, fine by me, and, on balance, better for my classes.

More realistically, there are very few individuals who choose to go to college without some job or career intentions, and in that case, where everyone has a job and everyone is paying back into the system, identifying “takers” and “makers” becomes less clear. I think you have to look at his issue from a particularly abstract perspective to see much of a problem with Baum’s investment banker paying more, over time and in absolute terms, than, say, a teacher or home healthcare worker.

And if you do consider the principle here in abstraction, I think that you then also have to consider the broader question of value in relationship to different educational and employment choices, and not just how much someone ends up paying back to their college or university. Does Baum really think that the well-educated stay-at-home parent contributes less to society than the investment banker? (I’m not even asking for consideration to be given to the damage that actual investment bankers have done to other people’s livelihoods when using their educations solely for their own enrichment. Imagine an ethical banker, if you want).

The other side to this argument, Weissmann’s “engineer problem”, is not so much that Pay It Forward sets up a moral hazard, but rather that individuals with high-income aspirations simply won’t like the idea of ultimately paying more than those whose job goals or prospects are less lucrative. These feelings of unfairness or resentment will lead the engineers of the world to avoid Pay It Forward schools, leaving those institutions with a revenue problem.

Unlike the moral hazard question, the “engineer problem” is an empirical matter and until there is an actual trial of Pay It Forward no one will know if this problem is, in fact, a problem. That being said, I do think that arguments like these are rhetorically powerful for many Americans, but that, in practice, most people don’t actually base many of their important life decisions, like where to go to college, solely on calculations of whether their choices will result in them coming out economically “ahead” or “behind” other people.

Studies of the effect of tax rates on both households and businesses largely suggest that these play little to no role in individual choices regarding where to live or do business. That isn’t to say that there aren’t those who will decide to move, whether themselves or their business, because of perceptions of being unfairly taxed, but as Matthew Yglesias has noted recently, even in contexts where you might expect individuals to act as rational profit-maximizers, they often don’t, choosing instead to give greater weight to other values or outcomes.

While the ability to choose a college for reasons other than cost and affordability is substantially tied to class in the U.S., this is also an intensely personal choice for many students. Closeness to, or distance from, home, where one’s friends are, or are not, going, family ties to an institution, sports and geographic allegiances, quality of academic programs, appeal of campus life and activities, are some of the more obvious factors that can and do influence where an individual might go to college in addition to cost and how to pay. In other words, and by way of example, it is hard for me to imagine an aspiring engineer from a long line of engineers, all of whom attended Oregon State, turning their back on the family legacy simply because Pay It Forward leaves a bad taste in their mouth, which is how I understand the essence of the argument articulated by Baum and Weissmann.

I first learned about the Pay It Forward proposal in the Oregon legislature from Think out Loud on OPB and on that broadcast one of the arguments in favor turns the “engineer problem” on its head. The position here is that the status quo causes students to value earning potential over other considerations when choosing a program of study and looking at options for employment after college. The result is that many individuals end up majoring in fields about which they care little and entering into jobs that might pay well, but are not very fulfilling. More particularly, individuals are dissuaded from choosing jobs and professions in socially valuable, but lower paying, fields such as teaching and social work or, even, less remunerative specialities in otherwise higher paying areas like law and medicine.

In the absence of evidence one way or another, it is difficult to say whether the status quo’s “teacher problem” is greater than Pay It Forward’s “engineer problem”, but I do think it should be noted that the proposal under consideration is not classically progressive in that the tax that would be levied on post-college income will be flat, working out to 3% annually for individuals who finish their degrees in four years. This is clearly intended to make the system appear “fair” and to garner support across party and ideological lines, but it does make Pay It Forward less progressive than it could be if there were different tax rates for different income levels. I also think that this decision has implications for my second thought.

Pay It Forward is clearly aimed at addressing the problems of student debt and college affordability, but, in regards to U.S. public higher education at least, those issues are not isolated, but are the consequences of declining funding. Simply put, rising tuition and fees, and therefore student debt, are responses to state legislators cutting support to public institutions of higher education.

My sense here is that following a Pay It Forward model for tuition is probably an excellent idea where there is an adequate baseline of funding for services and the physical plant, but that where tuition dollars are being counted on to provide that baseline, the model turns risky. This sense is reflected in the recurring question of how to pay for the first generation of students, if and when Pay It Forward is adopted. In effect, state voters or legislators will have to be willing to provide funding to the public system at a level much higher than they have been willing in order to implement Pay It Forward. The question then becomes one of how serious everyone is about the potential for the model to bring down debt and make college more affordable. Maybe the Oregon study will reframe the funding issue in a way that gets the relevant individuals thinking about funding in a realistic and productive way or maybe members of the legislature who voted for the proposal are hoping that somehow the study will provide a magic key for solving all of OUS’ financial problems. It won’t, obviously.

Even if at the end of the study process in Oregon there is a consensus that Pay It Forward would reduce student debt and make college more affordable for more people it still seems likely that no one will have the will to address the problem of funding. In that case, the real shame won’t be the failure to implement Pay It Forward, but the confirmation that platitudes, and studies, are about as far as most people in positions of political and economic power are willing to go in support of higher education.

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On back fences and public space

A little over a month ago our back fence fell over. We’d been talking about replacing the fence – it was not in the best shape, we have dogs, our property backs up to a small city park- but its collapse took us by surprise. After talking to a couple of contractors, we accepted a bid and then waited for them to get to work and then to finish. The net result was we were without a back fence for about five weeks.Peanut Park

In the day-to-day, what we mostly felt was stress in the way that this changed routines for and with the dogs. You cannot, of course, explain to a dog why they can’t just go outside like they used to, and now had to be on a leash whenever they wanted or needed to go out. But after a few days they seemed to make the adjustment.

After the fence was finally completed a couple of a days ago, I felt a great relief and was happy to let the dogs back into their yard on their own terms. However, in the day or so since, I’ve also had a different reaction: I miss seeing the park and street from our back windows.

Even before the fence went up, I’d started to get used to the openness and ready access to the park, as well as getting to see how well used the park is, getting to know some of the other neighborhood people with dogs. Now, I have a feeling of being cut off from a part of the neighborhood, which is related to, but not the same as, the countervailing feeling of privacy that we’ve reclaimed.

I also noticed a sense of heightened anxiety, at least at first, which is, I imagine, similar to what social scientists who have done research on gated communities have found, which is that living in gated neighborhoods can increase one’s sense of insecurity (see, for example, Setha Low’s Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, Routledge, 2004). Not knowing what was happening on the other side of the fence, and putting our padlock back on the side gate into the yard, made me, at least momentarily, aware of “outside” as a source of threats.

Of course, this is not entirely hypothetical in our case. Our house was broken into a couple of years ago, over Christmas, and, according to the police, the park provided an escape for the thieves. The old fence had a back gate, which we opted not to replace in the new fence. After the burglary, one of the changes we made was to padlock the gates to the back yard, which made the back gate inconvenient to use and, in the end, expendable. In any case, access to the park via a gate is not a substitute for the openness I became accustomed to over the past few weeks.

Our prior experience with our house being broken into initially made not having a fence anxiety-producing, particularly as we left on a trip just a day later. That feeling was fleeting and the period of not having a back fence will likely bolster my sense that, despite the one incident, we don’t live in an “unsafe” neighborhood. Drunk students yelling late at night or setting off fireworks is far more likely to happen on a daily basis than is actual crime. A dog or two wandered into our yard during our fenceless month, but, as far as we can tell, no people.

I’d be interested to live without the fence for an extended period to see how my feelings might develop over time and what implications that might have for how we use and design the backyard, but the reality is that that would not be ideal for our dogs. We’ve had dogs in apartments, and there is no question that simply being able to let your canines out in the yard is far nicer than walking them out on a leash on a regular schedule. More to the point, our dogs, and one in particular, love their yard. She will explore, sun, and patrol for hours on a nice day. She could not do that without the fence.IMG_2253

Having our backyard open to the park highlighted one of the paradoxes of property ownership in the U.S., which is that being near public amenities like parks and schools add value to private houses, but, mostly, Americans also want to be clearly separated from such spaces. The value of such places likely comes from the way that they act as checks on further development than as public space (how many people want ample yard space or private pools, where it makes sense, instead of using parks or public waterways and beaches?).

IMG_2257Obviously, I’m conflicted on this matter, too. But, now that the fence has been restored, I can reflect on how this episode and how there might be different ways to imagine, and mark off, the private space of a house from the public space of a park or the street. I talk about these themes a lot with many of my classes, but mostly in the abstract and from safely within the bounds of dominant practices. The chance happening of our fence falling down disrupted that sense of “normal” and gave me an opportunity to think through these questions in a uniquely concrete and personal way.

COMIC BOOK CITY: screening, new video, downloads, “The making of”

Here is a round-up of recent news related to Comic Book City:

I screened the film at Graphixia 2013: Comics & the Multimodal World at Douglas College in New Westminster BC. Read about the screening here.

Before and after that screening, I added new artist and writer interviews on Vimeo. You can now watch all of the creator interviews from the film online via the Comic Book City album on Vimeo (UPDATE: you can watch the entire film at Vimeo now, too). The most recent additions, Graham Annable, Sarah Oleksyk, and Dylan Meconis, can be viewed here:

 

 

 

You can also download a copy of the film from the film blog on TypePad to watch, use, or share.

Finally, I made a “Making of” feature on Storify.

COMIC BOOK CITY: Portland screening at the ICAF & new excerpts on Vimeo

Comic Book City will be screening this Friday (5/24) at the International Comic Arts Forum meeting in Portland, Oregon. The meeting is being held at the University of Oregon’s Portland Center. You will need to register in advance, but events at the ICAF are free and open to the public.

In the meantime, I have posted my interviews with Paul Guinan and David Hahn to Vimeo. Watch here or below.

 

COMIC BOOK CITY: new excerpts on Vimeo featuring Kevin Moore and Dark Horse Comics

This weekend is the Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland and last weekend, in anticipation of the event, I posted two new excerpts from Comic Book City. One is my interview with writer-artist Kevin Moore and the other is a compilation of the interviews I conducted at Dark Horse Comics. Watch below or on Vimeo.

 

 

 

Maybe the people aren’t the problem: an alternate take on Portland-area wages

Betsy Hammond has a story up on OregonLive today reporting on a study released by a Portland-area business group, the “Value of Jobs Coalition“, which concludes, in part, that Portland metro area wages are being depressed by an overabundance of college graduates who are either, or both, working in lower paying jobs or for fewer hours than their compatriots in other cities. As reported in the article, the authors of the study frame these findings as signs of a broken or underperforming economy. While acknowledging that there is a question to be asked as to whether this “problem” is largely the result of economic conditions or merely the aggregation of individual choices, what is also clear is that, for the authors and the quoted economists and business figures, there is something inherently aberrant about Portland’s relatively lower wages and fewer people in higher paying jobs (read: STEM and finance).

Not surprisingly, given the current context for discussions of this nature, the study emphasizes that Portland is home to “an extra-large population of humanities [and social science] majors”, and that workers in the city disproportionately hold jobs or have careers in fields like art, design and media, at least in comparison to other places, where there are higher numbers of people in higher paying professions and occupations such as those in business and health.

To me, there is one substantive effect of this pattern of employment and the associated lower wages identified in the article, and that is a reduced ability to pay for services from lower income tax revenues.

However, not only does this contention elide the fundamental problems we have with the tax system in Oregon, the most salient being state-wide property tax limitations that already make funding local services difficult, but there is also the larger question, unasked in the OregonLive report, of whether the problem here isn’t so much with individuals choosing to major in the humanities and social sciences and taking relatively lower paying jobs to live in Portland, but with a political and economic system that is tied to an assumption that wages should go up, or that the point of getting a college education is to maximize one’s personal income (by way of illustration, the article concludes with a quote from Sandra McDonough, president of the Portland Business Alliance, exhorting the city to, “get strategic to get more people with finance, management, science, technology, engineering and math. We are short in these key areas that are moneymaking areas”).

The research that I did with my subjects and informants for Comic Book City offers some insight into how this study appears to miss, or ignore, certain nuances to the Portland economy and why the city attracts the kind of college graduates and professionals it does, while perhaps being less attractive to people looking to “make it big”, where that primarily means lots of money, but also fame and advancement.

As implied by Amy Vilet, the Oregon Employment Department Economist quoted at OregonLive, Portland is a relatively low cost of living location. Not only does the comparative data cited in the study include substantially higher cost locations like New York, thereby skewing the wage comparison, but the underlying point is that you don’t need to make as much money to live decently in Portland as you do in many other cities.

Among the writers and artists I surveyed and interviewed, most made mention of being able to do things like buy a house or go out to eat regularly while still working in a modestly paying field like comics, or in a “day job” that affords them time and energy for writing and drawing, or that is fulfilling in its own right.

Furthermore, it also seems clear that among those individuals choosing to stay in the city, material reward and advancement are not primary values. While no one expressed a desire to live an ascetic life, being able to have satisfying work and time and opportunity to participate in community and non-work related interests are values that the people I spoke with seem to hold over and above standard measures of “success”. These findings are consistent with what researchers at the Portland-based Artisan Economy Initiative have also found in their investigations of the cultural and economic lives of the city’s “extra-large population of humanities majors”. Indeed, I would recommend Charles Heying’s book, Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy (Ooligan Press, 2010) for a different view of how Portland’s economy works to the one underlying the OregonLive report. I’ve embedded an excerpt from Comic Book City below that features Heying and co-researcher Shanna Eller addressing this question of “values” for Portland’s community of artisan producers.

While Hammond’s article includes recognition that, for many in the city’s multitudes of humanities and social science majors, job and career satisfaction is just as or more important than earning potential (though, to be sure, this is viewed as part of the problem with the city’s economy, if not seen as being outright perverse), my research suggests that, for some at least, this kind of thinking also extends to the “luxuries” they want from where they live.

Repeatedly, the individuals I surveyed and spoke with indicated that being able to live well without relying on, or even owning, a car is a primary reason for choosing to be in Portland. While in one sense this is a reflection of the values noted above, in another sense, for someone on a career path unlikely to result in higher average wages, not owning a car is also an economically rational choice, as is living in a place that makes that choice possible. According to AAA, in 2012, the average cost of owning a car in the U.S. was $8946/year, which roughly translates to $745.50/month. For anyone looking to work in a field with modest average pay or that entails working freelance, that is a significant expense to be spared or mitigated.

That Portland affords individuals alternate forms of compensation, some material, some not, and that’s why many who choose to live there are attracted to the city, suggests that seeing a dichotomy between a) an economy that forces individuals to accept lower hours and pay and b) an economy that simply reflects individual choices may be an overly simplistic framing of the city’s workforce.

As cited on OregonLive, I have no doubt that there are individuals who are frustrated by what they see as too low hours and pay, but it also appears to be the case that many of these same individuals nonetheless choose to remain in the city. Some are likely tied by circumstance, health, family, but for others, quality of life considerations probably offset, or trump, such frustrations. In other words, it is possible that some people are both “forced” into lower paying jobs and also willing to accept such jobs in order to stay in Portland. None of the comics creators I spoke with were purely concerned with the income potentials of their jobs or careers or with their personal finances. I have a hard time imagining any of the individuals featured in the film moving away simply because they thought they could earn higher wages someplace else.

The puzzle for growth-advocates, and I think you see this reflected in Hammond’s article, is that the structure of Portland’s economy seems to be largely the product of market forces, but with results that contradict the assumptions of mainstream economic development models that place a priority on rising wages, both for urban economies and for individuals. What the Value of Jobs Coalition seems to represent is an organized effort to pushback against an actually existing economy where many individuals simply don’t care about the usual metrics of economic vitality or success.

I don’t want to overstate the significance of Portland’s difference or uniqueness in this regard, the city is still part of the global capitalist economy and the base fundamentals of the local economy are little different from anywhere else in the U.S., but at the same time the city does appear to be filling a niche, and successfully, for people who want at least marginally different things from the typical American dream of big job, big house, and big car. What or why you would want to see that as a problem to be fixed is beyond me.

COMIC BOOK CITY updates: screenings & video excerpts on Vimeo

Since writing about “Finding an Audience“, I’ve added a new screening announcement and also have begun to post excerpts from the film, starting with the interviews I conducted with author Sara Ryan and artist Steve Lieber. You can view the inteviews below or on Vimeo.