Friday, April 8, 2011

House passes amended GET bill and accelerated degree legislation

The House on Thursday passed an amended version of a Senate bill that one House member called a reaffirmation of the fiscal soundness of the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET)  college savings program.
Action on the GET legislation was one of at least three House votes on higher education-related Senate bills this week, as the Legislature moves toward a Tuesday deadline for consideration of non-budget-related bills from the opposite house.  
The House-passed version of the GET bill, SSB 5749, adjusts the term lengths of some members of the GET governing committee, requires the committee to adopt “an actuarially sound and prudently predictable reserving strategy”  to meet the GET account’s long-term obligations, and further establishes a role for the state Actuary in that process.
The version passed earlier by the Senate would make more significant changes in the program by establishing a less-generous GET-payout formula for future enrollees in the program. That proposed “GET 2” program was spurred by concern earlier in the legislative session that rising tuition costs might leave the program with insufficient resources to meet future obligations to GET contract holders.
However, a recent report prepared by the state Actuary affirmed the fiscal soundness of the existing program. It noted that future program solvency might be negatively impacted by declines in the willingness of people to invest money in the proposed GET 2 program.   
GET allows families to save on future college tuition expenses. By purchasing 100 GET “units” today, a family can cover a full year of resident undergraduate tuition and state-mandated fees at the state’s highest-priced public university in the future.
Rep. Larry Seaquist, chair of the House Higher Education Committee, said passage of the House version of the bill was essentially a confirmation that the GET program “is a good investment for our citizens, and when they buy GET credits they are going to be able to send their kids to college.”  The House passed the measure on a 90-2 vote with five excused.
The Senate will now have to decide if it concurs with the amendments passed in the House.
Another Senate bill that was amended and passed in the House Thursday would require the Caseload Forecast Council to provide a forecast of the number of students eligible for the College Bound Scholarship program, and the number expected to attend a higher education institution. 
The forecast will help in future budget preparation.  The College Bound Scholarship program guarantees tuition and fees not covered by other state financial aid programs to low-income students who sign up for the program in the 7th or 8th grade, enroll in a postsecondary program and meet other requirements. The first College Bound students will start graduating from high school in 2012.
The version of SB 5304 passed by the Senate also would require a caseload forecast for the State Need Grant program.    
On Wednesday, the House passed SSB 5442, which permits the state’s public baccalaureate institutions to develop accelerated baccalaureate degree programs that allow academically qualified students to obtain baccalaureate degrees in three years without attending summer classes or enrolling in more than a full-time class load. 
The legislation states that the three-year path is not intended to set a new standard for all students, and it would not diminish the quality or value of a standard baccalaureate degree.  However, it is intended to accommodate students eager to complete a degree in the shortest time possible in order to enter the job market, and to improve graduation rates.
The bill requires institutions to submit accelerated degree programs to the HECB for approval. 

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