The House Higher Education committee met this morning, January 31, to talk about Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition Program (GET) and Financial Aid counseling. To begin the work session House Analyst Catrina Lucero provided an overview of the GET program and talked about why it has been in the spotlight recently. Following Ms. Lucero, the committee heard from Washington’s State Treasurer, James McIntire, and James Smith from the State’s Actuary’s Office. Following the GET conversation, the committee discussed financial aid counseling, hearing from financial aid officers at our higher education institutions; including Evergreen’s Tracy Hall.
The GET program was created by the WA State legislature in the mid-1990’s as a 529 pre-paid college tuition plan. Measured in “units,” where 100 units represent the cost of one year of resident, undergraduate tuition and state-mandated fees at the highest priced public university (either UW or WSU), individual units are valued at 1/100th of that cost.
The GET program has come under increased scrutiny in recent years after the legislature passed major higher education reform legislation in 2011. Among the reforms, the legislation allowed Washington’s colleges and universities to set their own tuition, and allowed them to implement differential tuition. Just as it sounds, differential tuition is the process of charging different tuition rates for different degree programs. The reasoning behind this policy is certain programs cost more than others. For example, an engineering program costs more to provide than an English or history program. Differential tuition can be a tool of use for colleges and universities who have seen their budgets slashed in recent years. Problems arise with GET because as one will recall, a GET unit is priced based on the highest priced public university. Additionally, double digit tuition increases that offset some of the cuts levied to Washington’s higher education institutions, has caused the price of GET units to rise significantly.
After the 2012 legislative session the legislature created a task force to review the impacts of differential tuition on the program and make recommendations on how to proceed with differential tuition and GET. That taskforce, by a close vote, recommended closing the GET program, honoring current contracts and allowing differential tuition authority for those institutions that are not the basis for the value of a GET unit. A decision met with mixed feelings in the legislature, GET has now become one of the “hot button” issues of the 2013 session. Just how lawmakers will proceed is unknown at this time, but we will certainly keep you posted as decisions are made.
To kick off the financial aid counseling panel the House Higher Education Committee first heard from a panel of two year representatives. Following the two-year panel the committee heard from a panel of four-year counselors. Included were Evergreen’s Tracy Hall, UW’s Kay Lewis and Pacific Lutheran University’s Ron Noborikawa. All panelists talked about the importance of financial literacy and a knowledge of paying for one’s education. The panelists talked about the different types of monies used to pay for a student’s education, including, federal and state financial aid, scholarships and loans. With the recent recession and increases in tuition at our institutions, student “neediness” is increasing in Washington. However, the loan debt our state’s students take on is still low compared to other states in the nation. In fact, the UW’s Kay Lewis noted most of her students are still borrowing “responsibly” and are very weary of taking on too much debt. Lewis also talked about counseling “tools” available to students. These include “old fashioned” one-on-one counseling sessions provided by institutions, as well as a new federal US Department of Education website that allows students to project income and loan repayments, and explore loan repayment plans.