GET it together Olympia and fund higher education
In 2011 I sponsored the most sweeping reform of higher education finance in a generation. In exchange for a commitment by the universities to focus on outcomes around student access, affordability and quality, the Legislature granted universities local tuition setting authority.
The bill was a heavy lift necessitated in part by the state’s systematic disinvestment in higher education over the previous two decades. On a positive note it brought to the surface the failed policy of treating, funding and regulating our state’s six universities in virtually the exact same fashion despite their wide ranging differences. It was a shift away from one-size-fits-all to a policy of differentiation to recognize the unique roles and qualities of each of our six public universities. I’m proud of the bill and the work of the team of dedicated legislators (led by Higher Education Committee Chair Larry Seaquist), trustees and regents, students, administrators and others who made it happen.
Included in the bill was authorization to experiment with differential tuition internally within a university among programs. I believe flexibility to innovate and experiment is critical to change, and I believe in the systemic value of experimentation made possible by differential tuition. There is today a wide spread model of cross subsidization between various programs (for example liberal arts degrees subsidize higher cost STEM degrees). The bill was in large part striving to bring those types of subsidies to the surface rather than allow them to continue to be known only to the administrators working on internal accounting.
What I did not fully appreciate at the time of sponsoring this provision of the bill was the substantial risks that differential tuition poses to the stability of the GET program.
For two years the Legislature has studied the GET program’s solvency, stability and long-term prospects to ensure we are responsibly managing this important program. The recommendation of the working group is to phase the program out either through outright termination or a slow modification.
I strongly disagree with the desire to close the program because I don’t accept the premise that it is a crisis of debt.
Admittedly the popular college savings program where 120,000 accounts see the purchase of credits at today’s prices to guarantee funds for tuition and mandatory fees was a smoking hot deal for families as tuitions rose above the rate of inflation and greater than traditional stock market investments. The jump in tuition was driven by cuts from Olympia. Today it is less of an obvious deal for families since huge jumps in tuition have slowed but it is valuable as an insurance policy and a tool to continue investing over time.
In my view, GET as an insurance policy for families has value in and of itself.
It also allows a middle class family to communicate about college. Imagine a family discussion at the dinner table: “Honey, we have saved a little bit of money each month since you were little to help pay for college. We’re proud of you and now it’s time to talk about college.”
In full disclosure, there are some legislators who also oppose GET because it is seen as being accessed by families of above average financial means and is therefore seen as a subsidy of the ‘wrong’ kids. I reject this view based on the fact that there are not large numbers of families that purchase the entire amount up front. And I reject it philosophically.
Realistically the troubling financial risk to taxpayers to GET is, in fact, not the overall debt level (since there’s no chance all students will redeem their GET credits at same time) but rather the uncertainty and lack of stability associated with the prospect of differential tuition. It’s time for me to acknowledge that the policy I have championed is not a realistic tool given the implications for GET. Therefore, I propose a deal: Keep GET in exchange for rescinding differential tuition authority.
Washington’s GET program is ‘generous’ in that it guarantees that tuition and mandatory fees will be paid in tomorrow’s dollars. Is it such a crime to have a ‘generous’ deal that benefits 120,000 kids from the middle class so long as responsible steps are taken to minimize risks to taxpayers? Let’s make modest, responsible changes to GET–primarily eliminating the financial dangers associated with differential tuition–before taking the radical step of eliminating such a valuable college savings program.
And the political pressure is actually (perhaps counter intuitively) the only meaningful financial pressure on the Legislature to fully fund higher education after years of disinvestment. It’s not a secret: We can stop the tuition increases both by working more closely with universities AND by reinvesting in higher education in the operating budget.
The financial risks to taxpayers brought about by GET can be easily and carefully managed. The two key actions–eliminating differential tuition and funding higher education–are entirely within the Legislature’s grasp.
Your partner in service,
DISCLOSURE: My family purchased GET credits for our children in 2009.