GET good to go, says Seaquist

It’s a bad year all around for the state’s guaranteed tuition savings program, as Thursday’s story points out. But state Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, thinks he has the votes on moves that would save the program for the long term.

The first piece of bad news is high college tuition has elevated the price for college units parents can buy now to save for their children’s future college education cost. The second is that some with a philosophical problem with the Guaranteed Education Tuition program generally have greater power this legislative session and would love o see the program killed.

Seaquist, speaking by phone from Olympia following a committee hearing that spent 75 minutes discussing the program, thinks the philosophical challenges come for two reasons. Some are questioning whether the program pencils. The second reason comes because there are “some people who question, ‘Is this something the government ought to be doing?’”

On the first question Seaquist said he thinks what he heard Thursday should quiet any notion that program is financially troubled. As an earlier story pointed out, the program has liabilities $631 million greater than assets. The Legislature would have to come up with that money only if every person enrolled in GET decided to go to college now. That means everyone from high schoolers on down to babies.

Jim McIntire, state treasurer, said actuarial models reveal a well funded program. It’s not 100 percent, where the state would like to be. But being at 100 percent is rare, he said.

The state actuary estimates there is only a 0.6 percent chance the state would have to pay out of the general fund to cover liabilities in the GET program. This brings up an important point. The state administers the program, but it’s funded by people participating.

McIntire said the fixes needed for the program have already been put in place. The threats, other than a Legislature and governor agreeing that the program should be discontinued, are ongoing tuition hikes and implementation of a differential tuition program.

Seaquist has a proposal to get higher education funding back to a 50/50 split between tuition and state contribution. He also wants to kill off differential tuition, which would allow colleges to charge more for classes that cost more. For example, a chemistry class might cost more than a journalism class. GET investment rates are based on the cost to attend the most expensive state university in the state, either UW or WSU. If the universities started charging more for different classes, the effect would be “catastrophic” to GET, McIntire said.

So Seaquist has a bill to kill off differential tuition. Instead, he favors financial incentives outside of tuition rates for students taking classes in fields the state would like to see filled. He said Thursday he thinks he has the votes. He’s not promising, but he is optimistic.

“If we do the basic job of no tuition increase and we cancel the differential tuition feature, we’ve got a solid program,” Seaquist said. “So to me the GET controversy is over.”

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