Think college financial aid is only for 4-year colleges? Think again

When it was time to think about college, Mimi Toom, now a sophomore at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, knew exactly what she wanted to do. “I’ve drawn all my life,” she says. “As a child, what I gravitated toward was art.” The more she learned about DigiPen’s animation program, this seemed like the perfect place for her. When she attended a preview day at the school’s Redmond campus with her mother, she was sure. “I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to do,'” she said.

There was only one problem. It costs around $40,000 per year to attend DigiPen. But Toom’s family had saved and is now covering his tuition with a combination of financial tools, including a scholarship and a state-sponsored 529 tax-advantaged savings plan known as GET program.

As the cost of higher education becomes higher, families typically rely on a combination of financial aid sources to pay for it, and Washington State offers two types of 529 savings plans that can help. One, the DreamAhead College Investment Plan, resembles a Roth IRA account, due to the investment options available and the tax-free growth structure. But GET, the program chosen by Toom’s family, is a prepaid tuition program. This means that it allows parents and guardians to buy tuition units long before their children think about college. The value of the units is based on the price of tuition at the most expensive public university in the state, but they can ultimately be used at any accredited institution in the country and many others around the world.

Toom and his family’s experience with GET isn’t unusual, but some might think so: people generally assume that 529 plans like GET and DreamAhead can only be used for traditional 4-year degree programs. years. But as long as the program accepts the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, these savings plans can actually be used for a variety of post-secondary education experiences — and often are, according to Becky Thompson. , director of student financial aid at the Student Success Council of Washington.

Thompson says GET funds have been used to cover tuition at various post-secondary programs and schools, including art schools like Cornish College of the Arts, hairdressing and beauty schools like Gene Juarez Academy , specialized building programs like the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, and training in the aviation industry like that offered at the International Air and Hospitality Academy.

Students typically choose these types of post-secondary experiences, Thompson says. “The fact is that today, the opportunities for higher education are much wider than the traditional image of an 18-22 year old going to college, living in a dorm, working on a bachelor’s degree,” she says. “In fact, most American students are different from that stereotype and really follow all kinds of paths: apprenticeships, for example, short-term certificates in fields such as health care, information technology, manufacturing and others.

These certifications offer benefits: Many of the programs Thompson mentioned allow students to land high-paying jobs “in a time frame measured in months in some cases, rather than years,” she says. Nor do they necessarily preclude pursuing a degree program. “An example that tends to pop up right now is a student who could quickly become a medical assistant, work for a while, and then get a degree in nursing or other health fields,” he says. she.

Steve Toom, Mimi’s father, explains that this versatility was part of GET’s appeal in preparing his children for post-secondary studies. “That’s part of the reason we turned to this,” he says. “We have four children. Just in case one or all four kids want to go, it would give us more flexibility.

At Digipen, Toom lives what this flexibility can look like. She is a resident advisor and also has a job organizing memorable experiences for freshmen. The animation program, she says, makes her a better performer. She specializes in directing stories, in part because of how important stories are to her. “My goal as an artist is really to create stories that will impact families and people going through things, because growing up I really looked at movies and TV shows as an escape,” says- she.

“I know Mimi will succeed,” says her mother, Melinda Toom. “We are excited to see his future.”

GET and DreamAhead, Washington College Savings Plans. GET registration open from November 1 to May 31, DreamAhead open all year round.