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House wants to protect students, parents on tuition

GOP and Democrats unite to fight Rodney Tom's plan to erase parents' ability to save for state college tuition through a state program. But the House effort carries a price tag.

By John Stang

February 01, 2013.

A new bipartisan effort to dramatically slow rising college tuition costs emerged Thursday in the state House.

But the plan faces a big hurdle. The effort would cost $225 million or so — an amount that the 23-Republican-two-Democrat alliance controlling the Senate is not crazy about. 

Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, and Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, introduced a bill Thursday to limit tuition increases to a figure tied to federal inflation statistics. That figure would be drastically less than the tuition increases of 19 percent in 2011-12 and 15.2 percent in 2012-13. Seaquist is chairman of the House's Higher Education Committee, while Haler is the committee's ranking Republican. 

Tuitions at Washington's public universities are currently predicted to rise 12 percent in 2013-2014, 10 percent in 2014-2015, 10 percent in 2015-2016, and 8 percent in 2016-2017.

The Seaquist-Haler bill — with several co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle — joins a recent bill by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, which calls for a two-year tuition freeze. Her plan would be made possible by a $225 million extra appropriation to higher education.

Earlier this week, the Senate Majority Coalition leaders, Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, voiced qualms about the $225 million price tag on Kohl-Welles' bill. The majority alliance is leery of any budget increase except for additions to K-12 education funding that is required by the Washington Supreme Court. In fact, the majority alliance is looking for budget cuts elsewhere to pay for the K-12 education increases.

The only specific cut proposed so far has been to phase out the Guaranteed Education Tuition program — dubbed  "GET." So far, no actual bill to do so has been introduced.The GET program allows families to make advance 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.

For example, someone who paid $35 into the program in 1998 would have $172 applied to his or her college tuition today. The rule of thumb is that 100 GET units equal one year of college.

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 the state then invested and are now worth $2.9 billion. About 86 percent of the GET investors attend college in Washington.

The GET fund used to be able to pay 100 percent of its obligation at once — that is, assuming all the students, babies and little kids headed to college as well — until 2007. Then the stock market crash, plus skyrocketing tuitions, dropped that 100 percent figure to 79 percent, said Washington Treasurer James McIntire.

Tom wants to phase out GET because if all participants, including babies, wanted to cash out at once, the state would be $631 million in the red on this program.

On Thursday, Haler and Seaquist countered that the $631 million obligation is more realistically spread across a couple of decades. If GET were phased out in possibly the next four years, then $631 million in obligations  would become due in that drastically short time, they argued. State Actuary Matt Smith said the 79 percent funded level does not mean the GET program is at risk. 

State officials said the 79 percent funded level has already begun to creep back up toward 100 percent, although it probably won't hit that mark until 2032.

Seaquist and Haler argue that the $225 million appropriation would drastically slow the speedy pace of tuition increases, while GET would help keep college costs within the grasp of the middle and lower classes.   

"It'll pay. These dollars will have big dividends down the road," Haler said. 

Both said they will scrutinize the $225 million proposed appropriation to ensure that it is not overestimated and that the money will go to where it will pay what the tuition slowdown won't cover. "We're gonna be squeezing that number hard," Haler said.

The pair — along with other Republican and Democrat co-sponsors — introduced a bill earlier to head off differential tuition in the universities. Differential tuition is based on the fact that an electrical engineer major would be more expensive to teach than a liberal arts major, and each major's tuition would be adjusted according. While differential tuition is on Washington's law books, it has not been actually implemented.

Even though the differential tuition approach is dormant, Seaquist and Haler want it removed, arguing it would make GET and a tuition freeze or slowdown almost impossible to manage, especially if a student changes majors while in colllege.

John Stang is a longtime Inland Northwest newspaper reporter who earned a Masters of Communications in Digital Media degree at the University of Washington. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.

View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2013/02/01/under-the-dome/112756/guaranteed-tuition/

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Printed on September 02, 2014