Online readers this week lapped up the story of a Sonoma State University student who was told to remove a necklace with a cross on it, prompting quick apologies from embarrassed university officials.

But with apologies to staff writer Jeremy Hay, that was not the most compelling or thought-provoking higher-education story in the paper this week.

That prize has to go to the Associated Press piece that ran on Thursday about a plan in Oregon to provide a public college education to students for free, in exchange for a percentage of their future earnings.

What a concept.

At this point it's just that — conceptual. But at a time when student debt has reached an all-time high, and in a week when Congress could apparently do nothing to keep college student loan rates from doubling to 6.8 percent, this is an idea that should be looked at seriously by every state in the nation.

Here's the pitch: Under the "Pay it Forward" program, Oregon would offer students the opportunity to attend public colleges and universities tuition-free and loan-free. In exchange, students who earn four-year degrees would agree to have 3 percent of their post-graduation earnings deducted from their paychecks for about 25 years.

The money would go to a fund to pay for college education for future students. Pay it Forward.

There's a bit of a gamble involved here on both sides. If a student gets a degree in, say, electrical engineering and then spends the rest of his life in his mother's basement playing video games, he's not going to contribute much of anything for future students. On the other hand, if he goes on to invent the next iPhone or strike it rich some other way, that 3 percent could translate into a huge amount of money much greater than the cost of his education.

A person making an average $50,000 a year over a 25-year period would end up paying $37,500 for his or her four-year education.

Two-thirds of graduates now leave college with not just a degree, but a sizeable student-loan debt. Because of that debt, fewer grads are able to buy cars or homes, start businesses or even get married. Some economists believe that this debt load is helping slow the overall economic recovery, and predict that its effects will be more pronounced if the trend toward more student debt is not reversed.

"It's not one of those things that matters a lot in any given year, but over a couple decades or generation or two, it matters a great deal," Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics told USA Today this week. "It means that they'll have less spending power. It means that they'll be less financially prepared to send their own kids to college or for their own retirement down the road. It just makes for a less healthy economy and a more vulnerable one."

Of course, if you sign up for 3 percent of your salary to be deducted after college, that's debt, too. But it's a fixed, manageable amount that remains in proportion to the amount you earn after college. In USA Today's story this week, some new grads were paying more than $500 a month on their student loans shortly after they left school. At 3 percent, a person earning $40,000 the first year out of college would pay $100 a month to the Pay it Forward plan.

Oregon needs to figure out how to cover the start-up costs of this program, which are estimated at $9 billion to cover the initial costs of providing free education prior to seeing any returns from post-graduation paychecks. The bill signed by the governor this week directs that a pilot project be developed for approval by the 2015 Legislature.

So while this may be an idea whose time has come, it's not going to happen any time soon. And, while free tuition makes a huge difference, students and their families also need to figure out how to cover the other expenses associated with college.

But it's good to know that, at least in Oregon, people are thinking about ways to prevent college from becoming a luxury only available to a lucky few.

(Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.)