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Betty Lochner has been the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) director for several years. While college tuition fees in Washington state continue to increase, GET allows parents to pre-pay their children's college tuition to avoid paying higher costs in the future. (Jake Parrish, Yakima Herald-Republic)

YAKIMA, Wash. -- As the director of the state’s prepaid tuition program, Betty Lochner has this advice: Start planning while your child is still young.

Follow that advice and your child just might graduate college debt free.

Washington is one of just four states offering “full-faith” prepaid tuition plans for higher education, meaning what you purchase now will be fully valid when your child starts college no matter how much tuition costs have gone up in the meantime.

The Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program allows parents to begin saving for college by purchasing what are called “units,” a system of measurement used to track the amount of tuition being paid for. One year of tuition and mandatory fees at the state’s most expensive public university is the equivalent of 100 units, and buyers are guaranteed by the Legislature that units will cover that cost no matter how much tuition goes up from the time the units are purchased.

“It’s a very unique program, it’s like an insurance product,” said Lochner in a recent interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic. “It’s guaranteed to keep up with tuition costs regardless; so if you buy a year now, you have a year later regardless of how much tuition goes up over time.”

A unit now costs about $113, and buyers can purchase them at-will or through custom plans. In addition to tuition, buyers can use units to pay for fees, books, supplies, equipment, costs of special needs services and room and board.

“It’s completely flexible, it can be used for anything required for your education,” Lochner said. “If it’s required for your class, even if it’s a computer or a test or a lab or anything like that, it’s eligible.”

Whether in-state or out-of-state, GET units can be used to cover expenses at public or private universities — for undergraduate or postgraduate education — and at community colleges or trade schools.

However, since the units are based on the cost of undergraduate expenses at Washington’s most expensive public school, Lochner said the units likely won’t go as far for out-of-state schools or private schools, or when paying for postgraduate tuition.

Tuition and fees at state universities can vary from as low as $7,000 per year at Eastern Washington University to $12,000 at Washington State University. However, other costs make the University of Washington the most expensive to attend.

So far, 51,000 students have used GET to attend college.

A chief benefit of using the program, Lochner said, is that it helps prevent students from needing to take out burdensome loans that can take years to pay off.

“Kids are coming out of school with debt, and it’s changing the decisions they make,” she said. “They have to move home, they can’t buy a new car, they can’t take a risk and go to New York and try to find a job — it’s taking away choices for them.”

Prepaying for college can be daunting for parents. However, Lochner said starting early, avoiding superfluous purchases and coming up with a payment plan — such as paying as little as $25 a month — can make the process more affordable. That way, she said, parents are saving small amounts of money over several years rather than trying to come up with thousands of dollars right before their child leaves for college.

“It seems huge,” she said. “They think, ‘oh, really? I’m going to save $20,000 on top of just trying to keep food on the table?’ So we try to help people understand that baby steps are going to be huge in the long run ... start as soon as you can.”

From 2015 to 2016, the program had to stop selling new units in response to legislation that reduced tuition levels at all state colleges and universities, and refunded money to some buyers who had already paid for higher tuition costs.

But now, because of gains in the stock market and because tuition is rising more slowly than expected, the program has a reserve of hundreds of millions of dollars the state is using to fund a new college investment plan called DreamAhead. Before, Washington was the only state to offer only a prepaid college tuition plan, Lochner said.

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that allows people who bought into the GET program before July 2015 to roll their accounts over into DreamAhead.

The new investment plan works like an IRA or a 401(k), offering investors a chance to accumulate college savings tax-free with different investment options, many of which are tied to the stock market. The difference is that in DreamAhead, the risk is borne by the investor, whereas in GET the risk is borne by the state. Lochner said DreamAhead formally launches in June.

Moving forward, Lochner said the program aims to tackle its two biggest problems: Outreach and convincing people the program is worth investing in.

“The biggest complaint we hear is ‘why didn’t I know about this sooner?’” she said. “And people are hesitant to do things that involve money, a lot of times they’ll get the information and then it will just sit on their counter ... but you can’t put a price on your child’s future.”

Information from the Seattle Times was included in this report.

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