Florida’s prepaid tuition plan, like those in other states, is probably living on borrowed time. That time may soon run out, if Gov. Rick Scott gives the state’s flagship universities the tuition-setting freedom they want.
A bill awaiting Scott’s signature would eliminate tuition increase caps for public universities that meet 11 out of 14 benchmarks in areas such as selectivity, graduation rates, research and fundraising. Scott has played his cards close to the vest on whether he will approve or veto the legislation, which is, unsurprisingly, unpopular with students across the Sunshine State.
So far, only the University of Florida and Florida State University would meet the standards and be permitted to charge “market rate tuition.” The state’s nine other schools, however, could gradually work their way toward qualification. Currently, public universities in Florida can raise tuition no more than 15 percent each year.
The universities say the increased financial freedom would serve as a much-needed reward for excellence and allow them to become more competitive. Meanwhile, Stanley Tate, a Miami businessman credited with starting Florida Prepaid, the state’s prepaid 529 plan, has said the bill “will end the program.”
Prepaid 529 plans allow parents to buy college credits for their children in advance, generally at prices that are somewhat higher than present rates but not as high as costs are expected to be once the kids reach college age. The plan sponsor invests that money, hoping to generate a high enough return to cover tuition increases. Theoretically, plan participants don’t have to worry about what happens to financial markets or tuition prices, since they are already assured a certain number of credits for their money. This is in contrast to college savings 529 plans, where participants themselves take on investment risks and benefit from market gains.
As I have written before, however, prepaid plans are not as risk-free as they appear. While all but one of the prepaid 529 plans on the market are sponsored by states, not every state with a plan has backed it with the full faith and credit of its treasury. Of the 18 states that offer prepaid 529s, just Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Washington and Texas offer an unconditional guarantee. As a result, many participants are unknowingly gambling on the hope that, if their plan ends up without enough cash, the state government will voluntarily offer up the necessary funds. Given many states’ overall financial difficulties, that’s not a very attractive bet. Even in states that include solid guarantees, future legislation could change the plans’ features and benefits, or restrict new contributions.
While plans would ideally fund themselves, there is a real chance that many prepaid 529 programs will find themselves at the mercy of legislators as a result of higher than expected tuition increases and worse than expected investment performance. More than half of state plans are currently underfunded, according to data from the College Savings Plans Network, a nonprofit association that advocates 529 plans.
The problem is that there is no easy way to project how tuition costs will increase relative to investment gains. The Florida bill highlights the issue.
Because Florida is one of the handful of states that fully guarantee their prepaid 529 plans, the state will be on the hook if the bill is enacted and University of Florida and Florida State University raise tuition dramatically. This is why the legislation could lead to the end of the prepaid program for future participants. With no way of foreseeing how tuition rates at top schools may change in the future, the state will likely think twice before signing up any new beneficiaries. It would be following a trend if it decided against allowing them. Since 2000, Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia have all closed the door to new participants in their prepaid programs
The truth is, whether the variable in question is legislative action or market forces, there is no such thing as a risk-free investment. Even when current Florida Prepaid contracts were issued, while the tuition increase caps were firmly in place, the trajectory of tuition increases was never entirely foreseeable, since there was always the chance that the caps would be altered.
I have never used or recommended a prepaid 529 plan. There’s nothing wrong with taking financial risks. But there is something wrong with pretending risks don’t exist where they do.