Opinion

STATE SEN. NATHAN SCHLICHER | Keep college savings program open

Sen. Nathan Schlicher

There are a few folks in Olympia talking about getting rid of the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program that helps many students in the state achieve a higher education degree at an affordable price. Let me be clear: I do not support the destruction of GET. It is a short-sighted foolish suggestion, and a response to an exaggerated controversy. There are issues with GET that we need to address, but ending the popular program is not the solution.

GET allows parents and others to buy tuition credits at a set price today that guarantees 100 credits will cover one year of tuition when the student is ready. It’s paid for by the people who buy the credits, not our tax dollars.

It is true that the program right now has an unfunded liability. That is a reflection of many factors, including the recent Great Recession, which dropped the value of the GET reserve just as it did for many of our 401-k retirement plans. However, accounts are recovering with the economy, and the actuarial estimates are that there is a less than 2 percent risk of the program becoming insolvent before it recovers.

So, why would anyone recommend destroying a program trusted with 144,000 college savings accounts for Washington kids to avoid a risk of less than 2 percent? If you have the answer, let me know.

There are external threats to the program, like variable tuition, that must be addressed. Variable tuition would allow universities to charge different prices for different degrees. Although it allows universities to recoup more of their costs in expensive, technical fields, it also means GET costs to families must go ever-higher to cover these new costs. I personally object to this approach, as it puts an education for some rewarding careers out of reach for many students. We need to find a way to adequately fund all students, and we must solve the variable tuition issue.

We must also acknowledge that funding for higher education has been dramatically slashed by prior legislators. The state share of the core costs of instruction at Washington’s four-year colleges has dropped from 60 percent to just 35 percent over the course of the recent financial crisis. The result has been skyrocketing tuition rates, as schools raise costs to avoid deep cuts.As a new senator this year, I do see the real budgetary problems that exist and I know tough choices will be made. But we cannot continue to rapidly shift the burden of maintaining our colleges and universities to tuition. It’s unfair to students and it undermines the solvency of GET, which is relied on by so many families. Increasing tuition costs need to be considered carefully and we should explore returning control of tuition to the Legislature.

Nothing about this session will be easy. Between the Supreme Court mandating the State to fund basic education and our other budgetary obligations there is, conservatively, a $2 billion dollar hole in the budget. This is before we talk about addressing the issues of multiple underserved groups in this state such as those with developmental disability, mental health concerns, and higher education students.

But let’s not mortgage our future on the backs of our children for a short-term gain. We need longer- term solutions that preserve programs that are actually working for the middle class, such as GET.

Sen. Nathan Schlicher represents the 26th Legislative District.

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