One lawmaker calls it a "smokin' hot deal" — a state-run investment program that allows savvy parents to prepay for college tuition, locking in prices years before those first college-acceptance letters start arriving in the mail.

Trouble is, with tuition rising rapidly at the state's public colleges and universities, some legislators believe the popular Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program may be too hot a deal.

Several legislators say they are considering bills that would change the GET formula to control costs, possibly paying lesser benefits for families who purchase GET units in the future.

If Washington changes its GET program, the state would be following a national trend. A number of other states that offer prepaid-tuition plans have closed their programs to new enrollments or changed the terms of the plan because tuition rates are growing too fast for the programs to keep up.

GET is solvent today, but if every family enrolled in the program tried to cash in at the same time, it would only be able to pay out 86 percent of benefits, leaving a $255 million shortfall, according to one state study.

More than 120,000 families are enrolled, and the fund contains $1.4 billion in assets. The money is invested in stocks, bonds and other investments, much like a pension fund.

State officials are quick to note that families holding GET units today would not be shortchanged, even if there's a shortfall or if a new GET program were introduced. The state guarantees that, if tuition increases outstrip the amount of money available in the current program, the Legislature must cover the shortfall.

GET program director Betty Lockner said the shortfall is just theoretical — the program could have some good investment years and tuition increases could moderate, erasing the funding gap.

But legislators say they don't want to leave the state vulnerable to bailing out GET if the program can't catch up on its losses.

-Katherine Long, Seattle Times