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GET tuition program: Will it get revised?

The GET tuition program has been around since the late 1990s, guaranteeing parents and young people that an early investment in college education will mean the cost of a four-year degree at a public institution here will be covered. It’s a hallmark of keeping faith with families who are committed to helping their young people prepare for a good future in the state.

Now, the state Senate has decided that the Guaranteed Education Tuition program needs to be reformed. Under SB 5749, a bill that passed the Senate unanimously on Friday, the state would modestly reduce the extent of the guarantees (UW tuition, for instance, might not be fully covered as the state moved toward covering average costs); make students or their families responsible for the growing services and activities fees imposed at colleges; and impose other changes to reduce costs, including a time limit for graduation and changing disability or death payouts if a beneficiary decides against attending college. The changes would apply only to accounts opened after July 31, 2011.

There doesn’t appear to be any crisis in GET funding, and as a report in The News Tribune noted, an actuarial study in 2009 found little risk in the program’s finances. But this is a year in which the state legislature is, for better or worse, grabbing at opportunities to secure state finances, even at the cost of weakening the personal financial positions of tens of thousands of hard-working families.

The blog for the Senate Democrats explains SB 5749’s approach to changing the GET program this way: “Even though the program is considered to be very healthy now, many are concerned that the long-term health of the GET fund is threatened as tuition rates in Washington and around the country continue to increase at unpredictable rates as a result of the Recession economy.”

Unanimous passage makes an argument for the bill, and there’s a lot of value in having Democrats and Republicans work together. Yet, would either side be quite this eager to trim costs of a signature program for families and for the state’s future competitiveness if, say, income-tax supporters had mounted a winning campaign? Or if the governor had fought effectively to keep a very sensible soda tax in the face of a huge opposition from soft-drink manufacturers?

Sure, the “Recession economy” has something to do with the supposed unpredictability of tuition rates here and elsewhere. But families aren’t in a position to bring those rates under control. If anyone can, it’s lawmakers, governors, and higher educational leadership. Instead of finding ways to cover the costs adequately to control tuition, however, state senators are hedging their bets so that families and students, rather than the state, feel the squeeze if big tuition increases occur.

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