As Congress blithely allows student loan rates to double and most states reduces levels of public support for higher education, Oregon plans a bold experiment that bears watching.

Both houses of the Oregon legislature have passed a bill popularly known as "Pay it Forward, Pay it Back," that could revolutionize higher-education funding. A state commission will develop a pilot program and the Legislature will decide whether to fully implement it in 2015.

Under the plan, students would attend state universities and community colleges tuition-free, but with a binding contract requiring them to pay for their education with a small percentage of their paychecks for 20 years after graduation. An early model projects that community college graduates would pay 1.5 percent and four-year college graduates would pay 3 percent. There are about 21,000 first-year students in Oregon's public colleges.

The transition would not be easy because the state would have to assume all costs for the initial years, until the first covered students graduate and join the work force. That would cost about $9 billion, the state has estimated.

Pennsylvania and the federal government, along with public universities everywhere, closely should monitor the Oregon experience, which is a remarkable creative approach to the seemingly intractable problem of college costs and debt.