Tuition program helps students GET through college

State prepaid accounts can spare families from debt

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter

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Unusual among college students, siblings Hannah Etengoff, 25, and Gabe Etengoff, 20, will complete their undergraduate degrees without accumulating any student loan debt.

About 60 percent of students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2012 graduated with debt, with an average student loan debt of $26,500, according to a recent College Board study.

The siblings have the foresight of their father, Loren Etengoff, to thank. When their children were born, Etengoff and his wife at the time set up Guaranteed Education Tuition accounts, the state’s prepaid tuition program, for each child. By the time each child was 5, the GET accounts had accumulated enough to pay for most of their tuition, books and room and board.

“If you’re planning on saving to help your kids go to school and are doing it while they’re young, this is one of the best programs out there,” Loren Etengoff said.

The Etengoffs made education a priority. Instead of taking a vacation, they put money into the GET accounts. Hannah graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia and now is applying to law school, where she will use the remainder of her GET money. Her brother, Gabe, is a junior at The Evergreen State College.

The price tag for public colleges in Washington varies. A full-time, undergraduate, Washington resident at the University of Washington, one of the state’s most expensive schools, will pay an estimated four-year total of $108,136 for tuition, books, room and board, transportation and personal expenses.

How GET works

The GET program pencils out for families of students who won’t enter college for at least six years, according to Betty Lochner, director of the state’s GET program. That’s because younger students will be subject to more tuition increases.

“Based on the current assumption of what we think long-term tuition is, it’s always best to start when children are younger,” Lochner said.

In recent years, when state tuition was seeing double-digit increases, the GET program was under some scrutiny from some parent-investors. In a two-year period, GET unit prices increased from $117 to $172.

But this past fall, neither state tuition nor GET unit prices increased, for the first time since GET’s inception. In September the state actuary gave GET only a 0.1 percent probability of becoming insolvent in the next 50 years. A year ago, that probability rate was 1 percent.

Additionally, a Seattle Times article in October 2012 reported a key financial expert said GET and other prepaid tuition plans aren’t the best way to save for college. The plans aren’t tied to the stock market, so they don’t lose money when the stock market declines, but they also don’t gain money when the market perks up.

Students may use the GET money at most public or private universities, colleges and trade schools nationwide. It can be used to pay for tuition, books and room and board, even if the student lives off campus.

GET offers tax-free growth and withdrawals for savings. The account’s value is measured in units. The current value of a GET unit is $172. The future value of 100 units equals one year of resident, undergraduate tuition and required state fees at the highest-priced Washington public universities, Washington State University and University of Washington, regardless of how much tuition increases.

Relatives and friends can contribute to the account.

“With the holidays coming up, ask grandparents to contribute to the GET account,” Lochner said.

Finding college cash

How does a family with a tight budget save money for college?

“Come up with creative ways to make a priority in your budget,” says Lochner. “Cut down on eating out and coffee and put that money into the GET account.”

Brewing coffee at home and forgoing a Starbucks tall latte will save $2.93 daily, including tax. A five-times-a-week latte habit will cost $761 over a year. Over 18 years, that’s $13,698. In a two-parent family, that’s $1,522 per year and $27,396 saved in 18 years.

“College is very expensive,” Lochner said. “Pay now and save a lot of money, or pay later, and have a lot of debt.”