At least through next school year, engineering and chemistry majors probably won't have to pay higher tuition than history and English majors at Washington's state colleges and universities.
A year after giving schools the authority to charge higher tuition for more expensive degrees, state lawmakers now are poised to tell them to hold off.
Lawmakers are worried about potential insolvency in the state's system of prepaid tuition credits -- with good reason, according to an analysis by State Actuary Matt Smith.
A unit of Guaranteed Education Tuition costs $163 today, with the promise that buying 100 GET units now will cover a year of tuition in the future, no matter how high the cost rises.
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Smith told lawmakers that if the top tuition rate were to increase by 20 percent this fall, a GET unit would have to cost $257 and sales of the units would fall by almost half during two decades. If it went up 50 percent, a unit would cost $521 and sales would plummet even further.
Either scenario would reduce the money coming into the program and dramatically increase the risk that it would need a bailout from the Legislature to keep paying student tuition.
"We're going to have to address it," said state Sen. David Frockt, a Seattle Democrat who was alarmed by the actuary's figures.
Frockt and other senators, backed by the universities, had suggested a solution: Give schools the authority to raise "program fees" that GET units wouldn't cover, instead of tuition.
Students cried foul and one Democratic lawmaker, Puyallup Sen. Jim Kastama, called it a "bait and switch." Frockt's bill died, and lawmakers have dropped the idea for now.
But they say something must be done to allow schools to align the costs of their programs with what they charge, while also preserving GET.
Competing budget plans under consideration during the legislative special session, one written by Democrats and one mainly by Senate Republicans, both call for a legislative committee to study the GET problem and report back by next January.
In the meantime, schools are prohibited from varying their tuition and can't substitute program fees.
University of Washington, Washington State University and the community college system all say they are fine with the pause.
"Everybody is interested in differential pricing," said Margaret Shepherd, who lobbies for the UW, "but obviously nobody wants to bankrupt or make GET insolvent."
Most public universities have differential rates, according to research cited by the UW. Top engineering programs at the universities of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas charged between 11 percent and 46 percent more than a typical undergraduate degree. Other top programs at Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and University of California, Berkeley, did not, the UW said.
With flat rates, students in the liberal arts essentially are subsidizing those getting science, technology, engineering and math degrees.
Allowing universities to vary tuition could reduce increases for undergraduates in the cheaper programs, Shepherd said. It could also, or instead, raise more money for high-demand engineering programs, she said.
Andrew Lewis, government-relations director for the Associated Students of the University of Washington, said differential tuition could benefit students like him who study history and political science. But he said it needs to come with a business plan and plenty of supervision from state officials, who can respond to complaints by students and parents.
Lewis funded his own education with GET units, and he doesn't want program fees to bypass the prepaid tuition program. He suggests installing some kind of vouchers that would cover program fees for GET students.
That idea could get attention during the study. So could another idea that Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown sought unsuccessfully in 2011: To tie GET payouts to the average cost of college tuition in the state instead of the highest cost.
But that would mean no more guarantees for parents that full tuition would be covered.
"I'm hoping that the economy and revenue recovers to a sufficient point where it's less dire," Lewis said, "and I'm hoping that the GET program doesn't join this legion of other state programs that have just been thrown overboard because of hard times."