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Stanley Tate, founder of Florida's prepaid college tuition plan, fights to protect it

Stanley Tate says letting colleges raise tuition up to 15 percent would ruin the Prepaid College Program by doubling a contract’s cost.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Stanley Tate says letting colleges raise tuition up to 15 percent would ruin the Prepaid College Program by doubling a contract’s cost.

The old man loves a good fight. Stanley Tate has taken on a whole legislature, a governor and 11 university presidents. He's flying all over the state. He's hammering them with ads and e-mails. He's in his rhythm, chin tucked, fists cocked. He is a pugilist in a gray wool suit.

That's a rare and wonderful feeling at 81.

This is a fight about pride. Stanley Tate created something great more than 20 years ago. The state put his name on it. Now Tate sees the great thing with his name on it going down.

He really doesn't care what it costs to save his legacy.

• • •

The great thing is the Stanley G. Tate Prepaid College Program. He fathered it in 1987 and ran it until 2005. Gov. Bob Martinez, who signed it into law, bought the first two contracts. Tate bought the next three for his own grandkids.

Tate thinks the whole thing will be ruined by tuition increases favored by the Legislature and by starving universities. The plan is to allow each state university to increase tuition up to 15 percent each year.

Tate says the plan could immediately double the cost of a prepaid contract — from $22,211 to $44,474.

His math is somewhat fuzzy. Those who run Florida's prepaid program say the price of a contract goes up every year anyway. Next year, a contract will cost a parent $170 a month. If the tuition hikes happen, the price would jump to $265 a month. That's less than double, but still a sharp hike.

The kinds of numbers Tate likes are the old ones. When he went to the University of Florida in 1944, tuition cost 50 bucks. When he waited on tables to pay for school, he was tipped 10 cents a plate. When he bought those two prepaid college contracts for his kids in 1988, each cost 25 bucks a month.

Such good numbers from a golden past.

University presidents tout 2009 numbers. Florida's tuition of $3,800 is about half the national average. When federal and state aid is factored, students only pay 10 percent of the cost of their degrees. Meanwhile, the state has cut university spending by $285 million. Professors are fleeing to better-funded states, like North Carolina.

Tate throws a nasty jab back. Maybe some of those professors should go, the ones who occupy high-priced science research labs instead of classrooms.

He sticks by his little-guy numbers.

To stop the tuition hikes, he put up a big-guy number: $500,000. He's already spent $300,000 of it, on newspaper ads and a Web campaign.

Parents who go to his FloridaAffordableTuition.com Web site find a protest letter they can instantly zap to the governor and Legislature just by pressing a button. About 300,000 folks have pressed the button.

He has sent back small donations. He told the parents who sent checks: "Put the money into the prepaid."

• • •

Physically, Tate is compact, but by other measures, he's a big guy. His Miami-based development company has covered swaths of the state in condos and subdivisions. Even during bust times, he's a multimillionaire. He has advised three presidents — two Bushes and a Clinton. He ran the Resolution Trust Corp. after the S&L collapse. He just returned from Abu Dhabi, where he hashed out recession strategies with nervous oil royalty. Tate's advice: Keep buying American.

But Tate likes to think he's just a little guy who has them all fooled.

"I started as a little guy."

He is the son of humble Jewish parents. His dad was a salesman. Mom and Dad began their family in New York, then moved to Miami Beach. Little Stanley liked sports, and liked winning even more.

Favorite sport as a kid?

"Making money."

Tate was 16 when he entered the University of Florida in 1944. Dad paid the $50 tuition. For the rest, Tate was on his own.

He has since made millions as a builder and has juggled billions for the government, but the job he savors, the job he loves recalling at 81, is that old waiter gig, when he worked for tips. Meals came with it. He glows as he says it. He worked two shifts.

• • •

When Tate ran the prepaid program, he told then-Gov. Martinez to keep everyone off his back. "I don't want people telling me how to do it." He insisted on conservative investments. A 4.5 percent return for the fund felt right. No high-flying equities markets. He pictured mothers and fathers writing little checks at the kitchen table, their kids watching, absorbing.

About a third of prepaid programs around the country closed plans to more families after the market nose-dived. Florida's has $8.8 billion in assets.

Tate's little guys have blitzed the Legislature before. In 2003, he wrote every parent with a contract and urged them to bombard lawmakers contemplating a 12.5 percent tuition hike.

"They were bringing the mail in carts," Tate says. "Senate President Jim King called me and said, 'Call 'em off.' "

Lawmakers cut the hike to 8.5 percent.

Martinez just signed his fifth prepaid contract. He bought the first two in 1988, then two more for arriving grandchildren. Now another grandchild has just arrived — his "caboose."

Martinez has followed the current tuition debate only casually and takes no position on it. What impresses him, though, is how Tate hangs in there.

"It's not the kind of issue normally associated with people who are well-off in life," he says.

Back in the 1980s, Tate radiated passion, had the fire in the belly.

"That hasn't worn thin."

• • •

When Tate told his wife, Joni, he would spend half a million dollars to save the little guy, she said:

"You need a psychiatrist."

But after living with him for 60 years, she knew she couldn't stop him. "It's very important to him, so it's very important to me."

Still, she has mixed feelings. "Colleges need money, too."

She won one concession: He could fight this thing for a year, then quit if he got nowhere. Tate is rethinking that promise. Actually, if he isn't successful, if the Legislature allows tuition hikes, maybe that sets the stage for a greater fight, a greater victory.

The pugilist in the gray wool suit has that chin of his tucked. Maybe, he says, all this sets the stage for a constitutional amendment. He could start a petition drive. Set tuition limits in stone. What little guy wouldn't vote yes?

But don't those campaigns cost millions?

Millions?

Tate waves a hand.

It resembles a right hook.

Stanley Tate, founder of Florida's prepaid college tuition plan, fights to protect it 04/12/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 1:55pm]
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