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Irony Alert: Legislators want to gut GET (because their budget cuts jacked up college tuition)

GET program image

An advertisement for Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program

State Senate Leader Rodney Tom and other state legislators are mulling an end to Washington’s popular Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program. Their contention: GET doesn’t operate in the black. The real problem: their own higher ed budget cuts have jacked up college tuition.

Tom says GET has put the state $631 million in the hole. That’s not exactly a realistic number, according to GET director Betty Lochner, because it assumes all of this year’s preschoolers and kindergarteners will go to college next year.

In fact, a 2011 report by the Washington State Actuary confirmed the GET program is financially strong, can cover about 90% of its liabilities, and will function just fine – as long as large tuition increases do not continue indefinitely.

This bears repeating: the real reason for the (long-term) gap in GET funding is big tuition increases. How big? This graphic is pretty illuminating:


Courtesy of The Stranger, based on data gathered by EOI

At $12,383, tuition at the UW is now 354% higher since Tom put on his graduation robe, and a jaw-dropping 417% more than when House Speaker Chopp picked up his diploma. (All figures adjusted for inflation – see tuition increases for all of Washington’s colleges/universities here.)

The underlying cost of educating a college student hasn’t changed much, so that’s not the root of the problem. Since 1991, the total yearly cost of educating a student has increased just 5% at UW, and 9% at WSU. Costs are down 15% at CWU, EWU, and WWU.

What has changed is this: Washington’s legislators are budgeting far less for higher education than their predecessors did.

In 1990, the state paid 80% of the total yearly cost of educating a UW student. By 2002 (when then-Representative Tom arrived in Olympia as a freshman legislator and Rep. Frank Chopp became Speaker of the House), the state’s per-student share of UW funding was down to 67%. Tuition was pushed up to $5,670 to cover the difference.

Tom went on to become chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, before assuming his current Senate Majority Leader post; Chopp is still Speaker of the House. Together with their colleagues in both chambers, they have overseen the largest cuts to higher education funding in state history. Today the state covers only 42% of the total yearly cost of a B.A. from the UW. It’s a similar story at other state universities.

For many Washington families with college-bound kids, the single bright spot has been the GET program.

Starting in 1998, GET allowed parents and grandparents to pay for tuition “units” in advance, with 100 units worth a year of tuition at the most expensive state university. This year’s price for one GET unit is $172. That translates into $17,200 for a year of tuition and state mandated fees at the UW or WSU.

That’s a steep price tag, but here’s the thing: Washington guarantees GET by law. So if you buy those credits, you get the security/peace of mind that comes with knowing your child has the credits to pay for school, no matter how much tuition goes up in the meantime.

GET works. Among teens that plan to go college, those with a college savings account in their name are seven times more likely to attend college than those with no account. To date, GET has helped more than 27,000 Washington students go to college. Another 120,000 have money in the system, which can be used for any public or private college or university.

There’s no good reason to drop the budget axe on GET. The state will still be on the hook for every GET credit purchased so far – but since families won’t be able to buy new credits, there won’t be any new revenue coming in. That will just exacerbate the state’s budget problems.

Instead, our legislators should concentrate on ensuring today’s high school grads get the same affordable college education that legislators themselves received. That means finding a dedicated funding source for higher education to bring tuition back down from the stratosphere.

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