In 2001 Mike and Rebecca Stillings invested in the state Guaranteed Education Tuition Program for the college education of their 5-year-old son, Connor.
The program, created in 1998, was just starting to get some traction. To help publicize it, the Stillings family agreed to be filmed for a television advertisement. The ad showed them sitting around a living room, playing a board game called “The Game of Life.”
“With college costs rising, we wanted to lock in tuition at today’s rates,” their testimonial stated. “That’s why we chose Washington’s GET Program.”
The Stillings purchased 400 units over a three-year period at an average cost of about $44 per unit. Today those credits sell for $172 per unit. They can be redeemed at the rate of $117.82, with 100 units valued at the equivalent of one year of tuition costs at the highest-priced state public university, either the University of Washington or Washington State University.
This year’s open enrollment period ends May 31 and those with existing accounts have through June 30 to lock into today’s rate. The program will reset the prices at the next enrollment period this fall based on what it takes to keep the program financially sound.
“Our GET units are what make college seem possible for Connor,” his mom said in an email last week to Betty Lochner, director of the GET program. “It was one of the smartest investments Mike and I have ever made.”
I met with Connor and Rebecca this week to talk about the GET Program and the advertisement they starred in all those years ago. I showed them a photograph of the ad, which garnered a laugh from mom and a hazy recollection from Connor.
“I knew the ad was for some program, but it wasn’t until I was about 10 that I realized my mom and dad were saving for my college education,” he said.
Connor is 18, a senior at Rainier High School and a Running Start student at South Puget Sound Community College.
When he starts paying tuition next fall at SPSCC as an almost-sophomore, he’ll know he has a good chance of completing a four-year college education debt-free.
That’s because the 400 GET units his parents bought for him when he was just entering elementary school will help him pay for tuition, room and board, books and peace of mind.
“I’m glad my parents took advantage of this opportunity to help me pay for college and hopefully graduate from college debt-free,” he said.
The Stillings family is among those early investors in the GET program who have seen their investments double and nearly triple in value. When the stock market took a nosedive during the Great Recession, the value of GET tuition credits soared.
That’s because the state slashed higher education funding and placed more of the funding burden on families and students through double-digit tuition rate hikes. The value of the GET credits escalated quickly.
Based on actuarial assumptions, a GET account opened today would take about six years to realize a financial gain.
“Getting into the program early was incredibly fortunate for us,” said Rebecca Stillings, a program manager at the state Department of Commerce and Rainier School Board member. She and her husband own Curtis Cabinets in Olympia, but had to shutter the adjoining Curtis Lumber Co. when the Great Recession hit.
The program is tailored to families motivated to save for their children’s college funds when their kids are young.
“Don’t wait until your kid is 16 to sign up,” Rebecca Stillings advised.
Once he completes his associate degree at SPSCC, Connor Stillings plans to maybe take a year off from school to work or travel, then transfer to the University of Washington to complete his bachelor’s degree. He’s not sure what his major will be — maybe political science, maybe English, maybe something else.
“I’m trying to graduate debt-free,” he said. “That might allow me to start saving to buy a car or a house.”
I, too, can attest to the value of the GET Program. I purchased 220 units for my daughter and 170 for my son more than 11 years ago. They helped my daughter graduate from college free of debt, a rarity among her circle of young college graduate friends.
My son? He went into the auto sales business after one quarter of college. His credits are now worth more than $20,000 and the 10-year window for him to use them is closing. But my options are several. I could transfer them to my daughter, if she goes to graduate school. Other family members could use them. Or I could cash them out as taxable income, and with some penalties, but still at a considerable financial gain.
Whatever road I take, I agree with the Stillings: My investment in the GET Program was one of the best I ever made.John Dodge: 360-754-5444 email@example.com