Washington legislators consider changes to GET program

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by Associated Press

KING5.com

Posted on February 2, 2011 at 8:04 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 2 at 8:04 PM

SEATTLE (AP) -- The prospect of big tuition hikes at state universities has Washington lawmakers considering scaling back a popular program that lets parents buy tuition credits for their children years before they head off to college.

Under the state's Guaranteed Education Tuition program, parents lock in tuition prices when they buy the credits. More than 120,000 families are enrolled.

But The Seattle Times says some legislators are worried that with rapidly rising tuition at Washington schools, the state one day might have to bail out the program. Several are considering bills to change the GET formula, possibly by creating a new program with lower benefits.

A number of other states that offer prepaid-tuition plans have closed their programs to new enrollments or changed the terms because tuition rates are rising too fast.

Washington's program is solvent, with $1.4 billion in assets. The money is invested in stocks, bonds and other investments, much like a pension fund.

State officials stress that families now holding GET units would not be shortchanged, even if there's a shortfall or a new program is introduced. In the current program, the state guarantees it will cover the shortage if tuition increases outstrip the amount of money.

GET program director Betty Lockner said a shortfall is only theoretical: There could be good investment years and tuition increases could be moderate. And she says the proposed fixes might only make the problem worse.

But some legislators say they don't want to risk a possible bailout.

On Tuesday, state Reps. Larry Seaquist, D-Bremerton, and Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, introduced a bill that would allow colleges and universities to set their own tuition rates over the next four years. It also would set up a committee to study whether a new version of the credits program should be created.

"The current benefits are a smokin' hot deal, and anyone who can save for their kids' college under this program has really benefited," Carlyle said. However, it's "unsustainable at its current level."

Lockner said the GET funds were doing so well two years ago that the program had a 17 percent surplus. But the recession hit, the stock market plunged and the Legislature approved tuition increases at the state's most expensive schools, UW and WSU, of 14 percent two years in a row. Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget would boost University of Washington and Washington State University tuition by 11 percent in both 2011 and 2012.

If the Legislature closes the program to new enrollees and creates a second, less generous version, "you lock in the loss" because it's not possible to make up any shortfall without new contributions, Lockner said.

"You have to keep putting money into the program," she said. "It's more intuitive to say we need to shut it down, but it's actually the opposite."

She said one option being discussed for a new program is tying the payout to the average tuition at the state's four-year institutions, instead of the highest tuition in the state.

A 2009 report by the state Actuary's office concluded there was "a relatively small likelihood" of a GET program bailout, but if it happened under worst-case conditions, the cost could be "quite significant."

It said that if the program temporarily stopped accepting new enrollments, it would "greatly increase the risk" of a bailout, and if terminated altogether, it "virtually locks in insolvency."

If the current program is terminated, college students already enrolled in GET and those within four years of high school graduation could continue to use the credits. All others would be cashed out.
 

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