Living Cities believes that to address urban poverty at the systems level, opportunities must be created, people must be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities, and when the right opportunities exist and people are ready for them, there must be a means of connecting those prepared people to those created opportunities. These three pillars- create, prepare, connect- underlie so many of the problems faced by low-income Americans in cities, and simultaneously frame much of the reasons for hope and signs of progress we are seeing emerge around the country.

Many sectors and industries have a stake within each of these pillars. As one of the significant stakeholders in the ‘prepare’ category, higher education plays a meaningful role as a longstanding pathway out of poverty. Meanwhile, it is quickly gaining a (well-deserved) reputation as prohibitively expensive option for most people. Both public and private higher education costs are rising at dramatic rates, with the average cost of tuition at a stage college or university increasing over 8% in 2012 alone.


The Oregon state legislature recently passed legislation authorizing a study committee for a proposed innovative pilot called Pay it Forward, Pay it Back, which would appear to disrupt some of the steep barriers to higher education in that state. Originating from a successful program in Australia, and further developed at the Economy Opportunity Institute in Seattle, the idea behind Pay it Forward is simple: high school graduates who enroll in higher education (2 or 4 year degree program) are off the hook for paying tuition until after they’ve entered the workforce, at which time between 1.5 and 3% of their paycheck would be withdrawn and retroactively put towards their education. In reality, the pool of funds collected from the workforce would finance the education of current students, hence the name of the program.

This decidedly progressive approach to education financing could redefine the need-based financial aid and tear down a major barrier to obtaining an advanced degree in this country. In a time of restricted funding and resources for individuals, institutions (both public and private) and the public sector, innovation in areas such as education are critical to ensuring opportunity does not become an obsolete word for American youth. We’re excited about the potential of this model, and look forward to watching its future development.