Washington’s GET program: An accidental bulwark against higher tuition for STEM degrees

In 2011, the Washington State Legislature approved a bill that paved the way for public colleges and universities to start charging differential tuition: college degrees that cost more to confer, like engineering and business, would be subject to higher tuition than lower-cost degrees like history or English.

Rep. Larry Seaqust, Chair of the House Higher Education Committee and bill sponsor

Rep. Larry Seaqust, Chair of the House Higher Education Committee and sponsor of a bill to roll back differential tuition.

The most damning criticism of differential tuition is that by raising the price, it limits access to popular programs – particularly STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, and math) – that many states, including Washington, are trying to encourage people to get in order to create a more highly-trained workforce.

As it turns out, that criticism didn’t stop Washington’s proposed differential tuition in its tracks. But fortunately for Washington students and families, there is another (accidental) bulwark protecting them from this backdoor tuition increase: the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program.

As we’ve written  before, GET is Washington’s pre-paid tuition program. It allows parents and family members to pre-fund their child’s college education. Typically, families purchase credits for a child, who is later able to attend any Washington state college or university with tuition already paid.

What stopped differential tuition is the fact that GET’s pre-paid tuition credits don’t differentiate between degrees. (That would be impossible, since no one can predict what degree a child will go on to attain.) So, differential tuition can’t be implemented as long as GET is available to Washington families.

Beginning this year, Senator Rodney Tom – an original sponsor of the differential tuition bill in 2011 – wanted to drop the ax on GET, but he didn’t say it was to implement differential tuition. Instead, Tom claimed GET is a  massive liability to the state – a statement that came under serious scrutiny when state actuaries reported GET will likely be fully solvent in two years (despite the long and deep recession of the past two years).

At an October 2012 meeting of the Advanced Tuition Payment Advisory Committee Meeting, Senator Tom stated that Washington state should be focused on increasing STEM grads and expanding enrollment. It’s not clear how instituting differential tuition, which would raise tuition for STEM degrees, or ending the GET program, which would limit access to higher ed, would achieve either of these goals. At the University of Illinois, for example, a chemistry student will pay 33% more for their degree than someone studying journalism. How higher prices are supposed to expand enrollment remains a mystery.

Last night, the Washington State Higher Education Committee made clear their opposition to differential tuition – and perhaps their support for GET – with a 16-0 vote to prohibit differential tuition. The committee includes 9 Republicans and 10 Democrats. (There were 3 abstentions.) In the Senate, where Tom is Majority Leader, the companion bill to prohibit differential tuition (SB 5548) has not yet received a hearing.

Call it an accident of history if you like – but Washington’s students and families are lucky to have the GET program as a roadblock to differential tuition schemes.

Originally published at Washington Policy Watch

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