When Guy Roberts was four years old and earning a nickel a day helping his 7-year-old brother herd cattle into the Sunnyside sagebrush to graze during the depression years, when money was too scarce for feed, he certainly didn't look as if he'd ever be in a position to buy four years of college for seven grandchildren.
But that's what Roberts did about three years ago.
He plugged money into a new state-sponsored program that guarantees the money spent now for a year's tuition at the current rate will buy a year's tuition in the future at whatever the going rate is then.
He bought four years of tuition for each of seven grandchildren, the oldest of which are still in elementary school.
Roberts, who owns the Andrus and Roberts Produce Co. in Sunnyside, didn't go the monthly account way that this program offers. He took the second option offered by the GET program.
"I paid a lump sum, four years for each of the seven grandkids because I could do it," said Roberts.
"The only bad thing about it is I think the grandkids will keep on coming and then they'll be great-grandkids!," he said teasingly.
"A family that bought a unit for $35 eight years ago when the program started, now has a unit worth $70. Every 100 units equals a year of tuition," said Betty Lochner, director of the Guaranteed Education Tuition program (GET).
She explained that the value of a unit is figured on whatever the cost of tuition is at the highest university in the state at the time the student enters a university or college.
"That means the University of Washington or Washington State University. And the savings can be used anywhere, not just in Washington state," Lochner said.
When the pay now, save later program started eight years ago, a unit did cost $35. Today it costs $70.
"Even though $70 is a big increase, that's still a really good deal because tuition is going to continue to go up," said Lochner.
Alma and Antonio Martinez of Sunnyside didn't get in on the GET program for their first two children.
"Our oldest son graduated from Sunnyside High School in 1997 and went to the University of Washington. We found it a little expensive," said Alma, explaining that he made it through on a combination of student loans and parental help.
"Our second son graduated from high school in 2000, and went to the University of Washington. We took out less loans and he did more work. He went two years and is taking a break now," she said.
"It was pretty much set from the time they were kids that they would go to college, but it was just making sure how it would be done," said Alma, a registered nurse whose husband is a teacher in the Toppenish School District.
"After finding out with the first two how expensive it is, we wanted to make sure our daughter wouldn't get out of college with high interest rate loans or too many loans," said.
A search on the internet turned up GET, she said, and they decided to open a GET account in February 2005. They deposit $149 each month towards the purchase of 100 GET units, which is equal to one year of university tuition.
"I would have liked to do two years, but we wanted to wait and see what it would be like to have that chunk taken out every month. We've found that, if you don't have it, you don't count on it," Alma said, laughing.
"Actually, it's worked well. I try to tell my friends about it, but the concept is hard for them to understand. I think it would be good if the money could be automatically deducted through their jobs because it would be easier and I think even more people would buy into it," she offered.
Does Roberts, a fellow whose work ethics were learned out in the sagebrush during the depression years, think he's cheating his descendants from developing their own work ethics by providing higher education they won't have to work for?
"Nope," he says, "Everything will cost more and there will be plenty they have to pay for."
Roberts and Antonio and Alma Martinez are just three of 998 Yakima County families who have opened college savings accounts through the state's Guaranteed Education Tuition Program.
Families can buy just one unit or as many as 500, remembering that 100 units equal a year of tuition, and add to the account whenever they want.
The savings plan works in two ways: families can deposit a lump sum, as Roberts did, or set up a payment plan as Alma and her husband chose to do.
Whichever way a family decides to go, the investment is guaranteed to keep up with tuition inflation.
"Parents are realizing they can't wait until their kids are in high school to sock away cash for college," said Lochner. "With the total cost of four years of college approaching $70,000 this year, it makes sense to start saving as early as possible."
With GET, the state of Washington guarantees that the money families save for college will keep pace with rising college tuition. So, if parents buy one year of college tuition today, it will be worth one year of college tuition when their children are ready for college, even if tuition rises 16 percent in one year as it did three years ago, Lochner pointed out.
"GET also offers significant tax benefits because GET accounts grow tax-free and all withdrawals are tax-exempt as long as the money is used for tuition, room and board and other college costs," she said.
Families have opened 66,353 GET accounts worth $842 million since the governor and state legislature established the program eight years ago. More than 4,900 students have used their accounts to pay for college and another 6,600 will be eligible to use their accounts this fall.
Enrollment in the program will re-open on Sept. 15.
For more information about the GET program, go online at www.get.wa.gov or call toll-free 1-877-438-8848.