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Guaranteed? Prepaid tuition credits may not cover all degrees

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Jan. 28, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
February 14, 2012 5:28 pm

Under a major tuition law passed last year, Washington universities won authority to vary undergraduate tuition rates according to what different degrees really cost. But before they start charging engineers more than English majors, schools are grappling with how it would affect the state’s prepaid tuition program.

To protect the solvency of the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, state and university officials and lawmakers are considering imposing new fees to help pay for expensive degrees – fees that wouldn’t be covered by GET.

State Sen. Jim Kastama criticizes it as a potential “bait and switch” for parents who were told buying 100 GET units would cover a year of their child’s education no matter how high tuition climbed.

“Now they’re going to get there and find out that only covers the cheapest degree at the institution,” the Puyallup Democrat said.

Kastama’s stake in the debate is personal: He has a GET account for his 12-year-old daughter, who wants to be an engineer.

Washington’s public universities are in the early stages of looking at charging more to enter undergraduate programs that are more expensive to operate. They already charge so-called “differential rates” for graduate programs such as medicine and law.
“I think every campus is going to be looking at how you can practically implement fee structures that more accurately reflect the costs,” said Don Bennett, executive director of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, which administers the GET program.

At the University of Washington, the differences could range from as little as $2,000 to as much as $5,000, said Randy Hodgins, vice president for external affairs at UW, where tuition and mandatory fees now top $10,500.

Bennett argues GET needs a uniform tuition level to set its price and can’t be expected to pay for differential rates.

GET “was never guaranteed to cover the full cost, because even today there are course fees, lab fees, that aren’t part of the calculation,” he said.

When parents buy GET credits, they sign a contract with a similar disclaimer. Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said the contract arguably lets GET off the hook for the proposed program fees.

But someone could challenge such a decision in court. Frockt has a bill to spell out the authority more explicitly in law. It is scheduled for its first vote Wednesday in a Senate committee.

College students told lawmakers last week they worry program fees could be a kind of “stealth tuition.”

Read the full story in tomorrow’s paper.

A contract parents sign when buying the credits makes this disclaimer:

“Tuition and Fees” means resident undergraduate tuition and mandatory services and activities fees, as defined in RCW 28B.15.020 and 28B.15.041 rounded to the nearest whole dollar. State-mandated fees are those provided by statute, including operating, building and student activity fees. They do not include institutionally mandated fees that may be required at each individual school. Schools may impose their own fees, such as technology, library, recreation and fees to secure repayment of bonded indebtedness, and other types of fees. These fees are not considered state-mandated fees and, therefore, are not covered in the payout value amount.

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