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Officials insist that prepaid tuition plan change, but how?

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
Published April 23, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - State education officials said Thursday that Florida's popular prepaid tuition program has a stranglehold on university tuition policy and has to be changed.

How it should change was left unclear.

It could mean contracts are repriced. Or that some contracts for low-income families are guaranteed while others are not. Or that Florida eventually goes the way of other states and stops selling contracts altogether.

The Board of Governors, which oversees higher education in the state, began talking about the possibilities Thursday as they tried to find ways to cope with rising education costs and dwindling budgets.

"There are a lot of things that can be done," Education Commissioner Jim Horne said. "We can't let things that are popular wag the tail of policy forever."

There was no talk of changes that would affect the almost 1-million contracts sold to date - only some of which are guaranteed by the state.

State law guarantees tuition for those in college or within five years of starting. Others are entitled only to refunds with interest, though the Legislature could change the law to protect the benefits of younger students.

Stanley Tate, chairman of the Florida Prepaid College Board, passionately defended the program. "We have the best plan in the United States," he told the board. "It's making college more affordable for average Florida families. It really is a helping hand, not a handout."

Since its inception in 1986, Florida's prepaid program has become the largest of its kind in the nation. It allows people to lock in tuition and other costs at today's prices at any Florida university or community college. Its value also can be applied toward costs at private or out-of-state schools.

But critics say that bargain has greatly restricted the state's ability to raise tuition. The prepaid program is priced to accommodate relatively modest tuition increases. Tate said a series of increases significantly above 8 percent a year could cripple it.

Last month, the Council of 100, an influential group of business executives, proposed tuition increases of 13.9 percent a year for the next five years. Tate said that would leave the program with a $1-billion deficit.

Three members of the Board of Governors sit on the Council of 100.

Carolyn Roberts, the board chairwoman, said the board needs to be cautious before recommending policy decisions affecting the program. But she said there may be room for adjustments.

"The state has changed," she said. "The needs of the state have changed."

Tate said he always has been willing to talk about changes but said some officials do not invite him to the table. One university president, he said, has not answered three of his letters.

Clayton Solomon, a board member and the student body president at Florida International University, said he wants to do whatever it takes to make the program available to as many students as possible, for as long as possible.

"Our tuition is low. Everyone knows that," Solomon said. "Students realize they are getting a good deal. We can afford to pay a little more if we see something for it."

In other business, the board approved a plan requiring students to prove they learned key facts and mastered specific skills in their fields before graduation. The plan is part of a state proposal to hold universities more accountable. Students will be judged through tests, essays, portfolios and interviews tailored to each of the state's hundreds of majors. It could go into effect this fall.

PREPAID TUITION FACTS

Created 1986; now largest program of its kind in the nation.

Total contracts sold: 973,690.

Sold in 2003-04: 77,898.

74 percent of contract holders white, 26 percent minority.

Projected number of students using contracts this fall: 61,150 (50,330 in university system; 10,820 in community colleges).

- Source: Florida Prepaid College Board

[Last modified April 23, 2004, 01:20:38]


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