Denver It might be tempting to tee off on the people who structured the Colorado Prepaid Tuition fund, which is closing because it’s financially unsound, and criticize them for underestimating higher education inflation.
The assumption that tuition would go up just 3 to 4 percent a year seems naive in retrospect.
But the sad truth is that the fund’s plight is a symptom of broader failures.
And those are the inability or refusal of higher education to rein in costs, as well as the state’s divestment in higher education.
The cost of getting a college education is out of control and has been for some time.
In just the last five years, tuition has increased 36 percent at the University of Colorado at Boulder, almost 66 percent at the Metropolitan State University of Denver and 55 percent at Colorado State University. Those numbers come from a Colorado Commission on Higher Education report.
The report also shows that during the same time, state funding for higher education dropped form $706 million to $513 million.
Those are a lot of numbers that add up to enormously increasing pressure on families to find a way to pay for college. And they led to the demise of the prepaid tuition fund.
Conceived in 1997 as a way for parents to get a head start on paying for college, the fund was billed as a way to “buy tuition for tomorrow at today’s prices,” said Angela Baier, chief executive of CollegeInvest, which runs the fund. She termed it “nice but naive.”
(An important footnote: The 1,500 accounts in the prepaid tuition program are separate from CollegeInvest’s four 529 funds. The 300,000 people who have invested in those 529s are unaffected by the decision to close down the prepaid tuition fund.)
In 2002, the warning signs were clear, and the prepaid fund stopped taking new investors. Nevertheless, the problems continued.
Instead of the projected 3 to 4 percent tuition increases, there were bigger surges. The fund’s rate of return is based on average annual tuition increases, up to a maximum of 5.5 percent. The fund’s assets were not projected to make enough to cover its liabilities.
It’s not surprising the fund is being shut down, and we think the managers are acting responsibly so no one actually loses money.
The greater lesson to take from this is the need for Colorado to address its crisis in higher education.
The demise of this fund is a harbinger of difficult times ahead. The state must better fund higher ed, and institutions must be more responsible about holding the line on tuition. We owe the next generation no less.