GET program still a great college savings plan

It might be an understatement to say that our state’s legislative process sometimes confuses citizens. State lawmakers often engage in public policy discussions simply to determine whether to take legislative action.

That was the case last year, when the Legislature wrestled with how to fund higher education and put a stop to years of double-digit tuition increases. Senate Republicans questioned the solvency of the state’s successful Guaranteed Education Tuition program — known as GET — and at one point proposed to terminate it.

Fortunately, clearer heads prevailed. Legislators realized the program was stable, strong and still a good investment for middle-income families looking to save for college. No bills to alter the program were introduced.

Unfortunately, the legislative debate left many Washington families with the impression that GET was in trouble and not a safe and secure means for providing their children with a higher education. It would be a tragedy if the debate cost even one deserving student a chance to go to college.

Here’s how the program works: Families purchase GET units at today’s price, and 100 units will pay for a year’s tuition (or other higher education expenses) at one of the state’s two largest public schools some time in the future. It’s a red-hot deal.

Those who purchased units for around $40 per unit when the program first started in 1998 are redeeming them today for the going tuition rate of $117 per unit. That’s nearly a 300 percent return.

There’s no denying that GET ran into problems, but they were partly of the Legislature’s own making.

In its rush to cut general fund spending, the Legislature shifted the burden of higher education costs from the state to students and their families. They cut funding for public colleges and universities and allowed them to fill the gap with double-digit tuition increases.

But the GET program was based on a presumption of steady and predictable 7 percent per-year tuition increases. Coupled with a weak economy that reduced returns on investments, the program’s funding hit a low of nearly 85 percent.

GET program director Betty Lochner told The Olympian’s editorial board that she expects this year’s June 30 actuarial report to show the program is 100 percent funded. As of last June, it had recovered to 94 percent funding.

Lochner said about 10,000 families per year were signing up for the program, but that dropped to about 7,500 last year. Although new enrollees were down, the more than 150,000 GET participants continued to buy additional units at an average of 200 per year.

Students of families enrolled in GET are about seven times more likely to finish high school and attend college than students whose parents don’t save for higher education. The power of parental expectations has a positive effect on the state’s goal for a higher college graduation rate.

The Legislature can support GET by increasing state funding to higher education and by keeping tuition increases modest and consistent.