A new try to expand tuition opportunities

Shoreline Community College's campus in fall. Credit: Shoreline Community College

Every new-born Washington baby who later graduates from high school could get almost two years of post-high-school education free under a proposed revamping of the state's Guaranteed Education Tuition program, dubbed  "GET."

Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, recently introduced a bill to overhaul the GET program.

It faces an uphill battle. He submitted a similar bill last year, which never got a hearing in front of what was a Democratic-controlled Senate Higher Education Committee. This year, Republicans control that committee. And Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina and head of a 23-Republican-two-Democrat majority alliance, has already proposed phasing out the GET program as a budget-cutting measure.

Hasegawa described his new approach to GET as providing incentives to students to stay in school. 

The GET program allows families to make payments for state university tuition years in advance of a child actually attending college, with the program — not the child's parents — compensating for any increased tuition. Tuition is paid for in units, with about 100 required for a year of higher education.

Hasegawa's bill calls for the state to open a GET account with one unit when a a baby is born or when a child moves to Washington. That child would get 10 more units upon entering kindergarten, plus another 20 on completing fourth grade. The child would then get 30 units on passing the fifth grade, 40 units on passing the eighth grade, 15 units on passing the ninth grade, 15 units after the 10th grade, 20 units after the 11th grade and 50 units upon graduating high school.

That totals 201 GET units.

GET accounts have been set up for 146,000 college-bound Washingtonians of all ages, including babies. These people have invested $2.1 billion of their own money into accounts, which were then invested and are now worth $2.9 billion. About 86 percent of the GET investors' children attend college in Washington.

In the only concrete budget-cutting proposal so far in this legislative session by Republicans, Democrats or Gov. Jay inslee, Tom wants to honor the obligations the students currently enrolled in the GET program, but then not allow anyone new to join. Democratic legislative leaders oppose Tom's plan.

"There's been considerable push-back on the proposal to eliminate GET," Hasegawa said.

Budget numbers have not been crunched yet on Hasegawa's proposal. He is unsure how it will fare at the committee stage. "I want to get people's brain juices working.  I want to stimulate some thought on how to use our higher education system," Hasegawa said.

The financial health of the GET program is tied to Washington's college tuition increases, which have risen in part because of decreasing appropriations from the Legislature for higher education. 

Preliminary estimates are that tuition at Washington's public colleges will grow 12 percent in 2013-2014 — compared to 19 percent in 2011-12 and 15.2 percent in 2012-13. Subsequent predictions are a 10 percent tuition increase in 2014-2015, a 10 percent increase in 2015-2016, and an 8 percent increase in 2016-2017. If the tuition increases are 20 percent annually for a few years, or balloon up to 50 percent, that would wreck the GET program's finances.

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