Recent investors in the state’s prepaid college-tuition program will get a refund, and sales of the units will be halted for two years, while a committee that oversees the fund decides what its future holds.
Parents and grandparents who invested in the state’s prepaid college-tuition program in the last four years will get a $20-a-unit refund. At the same time, lump-sum sales of Guaranteed Education Tuition units will be halted for up to two years.
On Tuesday, the state committee that oversees the GET program made those two decisions and also considered, but stopped short, of giving all investors the opportunity to pull out their money without penalty. While some of the committee’s five members said they were ready to take that step, others wanted more time to review waivers that would be given to those who decide to pull out. The GET committee meets again on Sept. 1.
That decision didn’t satisfy Carrie Petz, the Vancouver mom of a 14-year-old. She was one of the few account-holders who testified at the meeting Tuesday in Olympia, held in the wake of tuition cuts that have left Petz and other account-holders concerned about the value of their investments.
Petz said she purchased 450 units at $163 a unit when her son was 11, and “every day I feel like his money is losing more ground.” Her worries over the program’s future are taking a personal toll on her family, she said.
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When the committee decided to delay a decision on no-penalty pullouts, Petz wanted to know why.
Washington runs one of the few college-savings programs in the country that allow parents to pay tuition in advance, but at a premium price that’s higher than the cost of tuition today.
More than half buy the units all at once during the year, in what’s termed a lump-sum transaction; some also buy the units over time, in a kind of installment plan. Those sales, called “custom contracts,” were not halted by the committee’s vote Tuesday.
The program is guaranteed to keep pace with the cost of in-state tuition, which has always either gone up each year or, more recently, been frozen by lawmakers. But this year, the Legislature rolled tuition back at public colleges by 5 to 20 percent for the next two academic years, and also froze the payout value of a GET unit to $117 for the next two years, meaning that anyone who owns GET units won’t see any gains at all in their college savings through 2017.
That’s an especially worrisome problem for people such as Petz who bought units over the last four years, when they cost $163 to $172 each. They are, in effect, under water — similar to homeowners whose mortgages are higher than the value of their homes.
Account-holders who purchased GET units at that price, and plan to to use their units in the next 6 to 8 years, may never recover all of their initial purchase price, GET staffers say. Parents whose children go to private or out-of-state schools are also concerned about losing ground because tuition at those schools continues to rise.
That’s why the committee is considering letting GET account-holders withdraw funds without penalty, so they have the option of seeking better returns elsewhere.
One of the committee members who wanted more time before making that move was Beth Berendt.
Among her concerns: The state Supreme Court’s ruling that Legislators are not adequately funding public K-12 education could cause lawmakers to rewrite the budget and undo the college-tuition cuts that were promised in the last session.
Berendt said she wanted the state Attorney General’s Office to draw up a waiver form for account-holders to sign to make sure they understood the ramifications of withdrawing from the fund.
There were also questions about how a refund would work for account-holders who pay for GET units month to month, rather than making a lump-sum payment.
“We need to take time and do this correctly,” said GET committee member David Schumacher, director of the state Office of Financial Management.
While the GET staff said they have heard from more than a thousand GET account-holders via an online survey in recent weeks — most of them expressing concern about the value of their accounts — no one really knows what will happen if all account-holders are given the option to pull out, said state Actuary Matt Smith.
By his calculations, if all account-holders who bought units during the last four years were to cash out, the fund would lose 5 percent of its value.
Smith’s office is finishing up a new report on the value of GET, but he said it is estimated to be more than 115 percent funded — that is, it has more than enough money to pay its outstanding obligations to investors.
The impact of refunding the amortization fee is not a mystery.
It would reduce the fund — which contains nearly $3 billion in assets — by about $60 million, and about 33,116 unique account owners would receive a check. For an account-holder who bought 100 units in the last four years, the refund would be about $2,000. It will take the staff about three months to issue the refund checks.
The amortization fee was put in place four years ago, to help the fund recover from losses it incurred when the stock market plunged and the price of tuition rose by as much as 20 percent in just one year.
One ongoing challenge for the GET committee: Trying to figure out how much to charge for the units in the future.
“We have to second-guess the actions of the Legislature for the next 20 years,” said state Treasurer and GET committee member Jim McIntire.