Parents get GET help on kids' college tuition

Robert and Natalie Atkinson don't have to worry anymore about paying for their two children's college tuition when they're old enough to go.
Considering that Elizabeth is 7 and Elliott is 9, that's quite an accomplishment for the Queen Anne couple.

But they haven't won the lottery, and they're not super-rich. Instead, the Atkinsons are taking part in the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program, which was started in Washington state a decade ago.

Here's how it works, according to Whitney DalBalcon, GET's associate communications director. Parents
buy credits, 100 of which will cover one year of tuition, and 400 of which will pay tuition for a four-year degree, she said.

Individual credits currently cost $74 apiece, and 400 of them will pay for $100,000 worth of tuition by the time children go to college, "assuming tuition continues to increase at its historical rate of 7 percent a year," DalBalcon explained. The accounts can also be used to attend out-of-state schools or trade schools, she said.

The GET program is based on the IRS' 529 tax code, which means the money parents pay into the GET account grows tax free. The money can also be withdrawn tax free as long as it's used for tuition or any eligible school expense such as books and room and board, according to terms of the agreement.

The accounts are guaranteed by the state, DalBalcon added. Washington is "one of only a few states with the guarantee."

Most states have similar programs, Robert Atkinson said. "I first heard about it in Florida," he said. "My brother has done it in Virginia."

Natalie said that was part of the reason she and her husband signed on to the program. "It's kind of like it's in the family; they're all doing it," she said.

The GET program can also be used to buy 500 credits, DalBalcon said. Some have between 400 and 500 credits in their GET accounts, she said. "We have people all across the board." Still, parents don't have to buy either 400 or 500 credits before the money can be used for college, DalBalcon stressed.

There are now more than 83,000 GET accounts in the state whose worth totals more than $1 billion, and around 9,700 students have used their accounts at colleges in 49 states and five countries, according to a program fact sheet.

Parents can pay as they go, they can set up a monthly payment schedule, or parents can pay a lump sum, DalBalcon said. The Atkinsons opted for the lump-sum payment around seven years ago, they said.

At that time, it cost them around $14,500 for each of the two accounts. "After we bought it, it jumped up 15 percent," Robert said of the total payment.

The average age of children when their parents open a GET account is 6, although some open the accounts while the mother is still pregnant, DalBalcon said. "It's never to late to start," she added, "but the sooner you start, the more you can save."

The deadline to sign up this year is March 31; after that, the next time it will be possible to sign up is Sept. 15. For information, log on to or call 1-800-955-2318.

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