Don’t ax the higher education GET program just yet

Hasty actions almost never solve a problem intelligently, and they quite often create new hurdles to a reasoned resolution. That scenario describes the pickle our Legislature has created over the Guaranteed Education Tuition Plan (GET) and funding for higher education.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, chairing a higher education legislative advisory committee earlier this month, suggested shutting down the GET program, because he believed it was underfunded and would eventually drain the state’s general fund.

But Tom was wrong. State Treasurer Jim McIntire and state actuary Matt Smith told the Legislature that reform measures already implemented have stabilized the program. If colleges and universities do not raise tuition for the next two years, or if the state increases its share of funding for higher education, the program could reach complete solvency in as little as two years.

That’s good news for thousands of Washington families who have invested in the pre-paid tuition program. For 15 years, the GET program has provided low- to middle-income parents with an affordable planning tool for their children’s post-secondary education.

Unfortunately, the GET program is not completely out of danger.

In its rush to shift the burden of higher education from the state to students and their families in the form of double-digit tuition increases, lawmakers gave state colleges and universities both the authority to raise tuition for all students and the flexibility to charge higher tuition rates for programs in high demand.

Both actions negatively impact the GET program.

From a state budget perspective, the tuition raises have worked out well. State funding for undergraduate in-state students at public colleges and universities has dropped on average from 70 percent to 30 percent. That’s terrible for students and their families, but it helped the Legislature avoid more draconian budget cuts elsewhere.

But the Legislature had to quickly reverse itself on course-specific tuition rates, because it would have created a financial catastrophe for the popular GET program.

The program works because it allows parents to purchase tuition credits at today’s prices and redeem them at the going rate when their child enters a state college or university. Financial stability depends on accurate projections about the cost of one year’s tuition at the state’s most expensive four-year school, the University of Washington. If tuition continues to rise, and if universities are allowed to create premium tuition categories, the payout value of a GET unit will increase, causing the program to become underfunded.

The Legislature has to fix the problems it has created.

State lawmakers have the solution for one of those problems in House bill 1043, which would take back authority for state colleges and universities to charge differential tuition.

The Legislature will have a more difficult time convincing our higher education schools to hold tuition rates flat for the next two years. The university presidents have said they would enact a two-year freeze, but only if the state gives them an additional $225 million over the next biennium.

Any extra money for higher education will be hard to find, but the GET program is worth saving.

The whole state benefits when parents give the gift of a college education. Hard-working low- and middle-income parents don’t have many affordable options to invest in a better future for their children, so state lawmakers should preserve this one.