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Guaranteed Education Tuition program draws record enrollment

Mom Kelli Mellish, pictured here with three of her four children, Evan, Andrew and Hillary, has enrolled all her kids in the state’s tuition savings program. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Mom Kelli Mellish, pictured here with three of her four children, Evan, Andrew and Hillary, has enrolled all her kids in the state’s tuition savings program.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

Deadline is near for 2008 enrollment

Some South End toddlers are college ready and it has nothing to do with Baby Einstein toys.

A record number of parents with newborns are saving for college through Washington’s prepaid college tuition plan.

One in every four new accounts opened this year belongs to a child less than a year old.

One youngster with a Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition account is Andrew Mellish of Langley. He will turn 1 this month.

His parents, Robert and Kelli Mellish, have accounts for all their four children, including Hillary, 17, Robert, 13 and Evan, 9.

Robert Mellish said Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program is a good way to make sure that all of his kids have a shot at college.

“I feel pretty good to have two years of tuition paid for all four kids,” he said. “It’s a nice peace of mind.”

The family opened an account for Andrew when he was 8 months old and he has about 50 GET units in his account now.

Fifty GET units will pay for about one year of tuition at a community college, a half-year at the University of Washington or Washington State University, or the equivalent dollar value at another public or private school when Andrew is ready for college.

The deadline for families to open accounts and prepay for college at this year’s unit price is March 31.

“Parents can save a huge amount of money if they prepay for college when their children are still in diapers,” said Betty Lochner, director of the tuition program.

For Andrew, four years of tuition at the University of Washington or Washington State University will top $100,000 if tuition continues to climb

7 percent annually.

Four years of tuition purchased this year through the state prepaid college tuition plan will cost $29,600.

Lochner called the price tag for a college education “humbling,” but encouraged parents to get started and save as much as they can.

“Even $20 or $50 a month will add up to a significant amount of money when it’s time to pay the college bills,” she said.

The state program works on a unit system, with 100 units equal to one year of resident undergraduate tuition and required state fees at the most expensive Washington public university, either the University of Washington or Washington State University.

The state guarantees that one year of college tuition purchased today, or 100 units, will be worth one year of tuition when a child is ready for college, regardless of how much tuition has increased over time.

Mellish said in uncertain financial times, socking away money now for college is a solid investment.

“I like the idea of locking this in,” Mellish said.

The Legislature and governor established the GET program 10 years ago to provide an incentive for families to save for future college costs.

Today, families have opened 82,000 accounts worth more than $1 billion.

On South Whidbey, 215 accounts have been opened.

Mellish became aware of the program about five years ago.

“It was not long after the stock market bubble burst, I was a bit disillusioned,” he said.

My daughter was about 11. At that time I hadn’t established a college savings account,” he recalled.

When his daughter goes off to college, the family will still have to pitch in financially, but tuition will be covered for two years.

Glen Eisenbrey and Shannon O’Phelan of Greenbank opened a GET account for their daughter, Zoe, when she was 8 months old. She is now 4.

“Our goal was to have her college paid for when she starts school. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s a good start,” O’Phelan said.

“We’re slightly older parents than the average 25-year-old,” she added. “By the time she starts college, it might be nice to sit on a beach somewhere instead of worrying about college.”

Families can use their GET accounts at nearly any public or private college in the country. The value of the account will be the same, whether a child attends an in-state public college or a private, out-of-state college.

Because GET is a state 529 plan, the money that families put into their accounts will grow tax-free and all withdrawals will be tax-free when used for tuition, room and board, books and other qualified college expenses.

Families that put money into their GET accounts in 1998, the program’s first year, have seen an 80 percent return on their investment.

“It just seemed to be the best deal,” O’Phelan said. “And it’s tax-free when she needs it.”

Families can buy units, even partial units, whenever they choose. Or, they can set up a monthly payment plan.

“Whenever we have some extra pennies, we throw it into her account,” O’Phelan said. “At the end of the year, it’s ‘Oh, wow!’”

If parents of a newborn decided to buy 50 units on a monthly payment plan, it would cost $33 a month at the current unit price.

Fifty units will pay for a semester of tuition at Washington State University or about one year of tuition at a local community college.

Anyone — parents, grandparents, or friends — can open a GET account. The only requirement is that either the student or account owner is a Washington resident at the time the account is opened.

To learn more about the GET program, go online at www.get.wa.gov or call 1-800-955-2318.

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