Susan Snyder remembers the day well.
Her younger son was 5, and the older one 7. The family had just moved to Tampa, and came upon a glossy brochure touting the benefits of Florida Prepaid college tuition plans.
"It was clear that costs were possibly going to double, and it would be a good idea to pay today's rate," said Snyder, who now lives in Ohio.
The Snyders bought two plans.
When they tapped into the accounts a decade later, though, they didn't get everything they thought they had purchased.
So now Susan Snyder is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that contends Florida Prepaid has violated its agreement when it comes to students who attend universities outside the state. At stake: Potentially millions of dollars that could be owed to about 20,000 families who used their plans at out-of-state schools.
At issue is the "tuition differential fee," adopted by lawmakers in 2007 to allow the state's five largest universities — later expanded to all of them — to charge an undergraduate fee that would help bolster program funding.
The state distinguished the fee from tuition, which it wanted to keep low. And so, too, did Florida Prepaid.
It exempted families with tuition plans purchased before 2007 from responsibility for the fee, while incorporating the amount into plans bought afterward.
For families like the Snyders, whose children attended universities outside Florida, that meant they'd get the value of Florida tuition — but not that of the differential fee. Students who attend out-of-state schools make up about 10 percent of Florida Prepaid's approximately 112,450 active plan holders, according to the latest annual report.
What's the difference?
Florida Prepaid contributed $116 per credit hour toward Snyder's older son's tuition at The Citadel, while the average cost per credit at the University of Florida was about $202.
"I paid in $13,000 (per plan). They said the value of my plan was roughly $14,000," Susan Snyder said, suggesting the agency initially made it seem like families would see a greater return. "I would have been better off setting up my own private investment plan."
She contended the differential fee is no different than tuition, as it essentially pays for the same thing, just with a separate name. The plans she bought promised to transfer "current" rates to out-of-state schools, and that didn't happen, in her view.
"The folks that stay in state get their value. The folks that don't, don't get their value," said Ed Zebersky, the lawyer leading the class action suit. "They're just stealing the benefit from these folks, and the time value of money."
In court documents and public statements, Florida Prepaid representatives have rejected the notion that they've violated the contracts.
They contended the families are getting the full value of their tuition plan, and are asking for benefits they never purchased.
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"The tuition plan specifically defines which fees plaintiff is purchasing, and provides that all other fees are plaintiff son's responsibility," Florida Prepaid lawyers wrote in one motion. "The tuition differential fee and the technology fee are not part of the benefits she purchased."
Shannon Colavecchio, a spokeswoman for Florida Prepaid, further noted that families who buy a tuition plan are not making an investment, but rather locking in a tuition rate with guaranteed repayment.
Newer plans account for the differential, she stressed, and older ones do not.
"The trial court upheld the fact that a subscriber using her plan at an approved out-of-state institution is entitled to nothing more and nothing less than what the subscriber would have received had the beneficiary … attended a Florida institution," Colavecchio said.
In an October 2017 ruling, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper found that the plan purchasers are bound by the Florida Prepaid master contract, which when signed was clear that it could be amended from time to time.
That meant the families were bound to any adopted changes to the terms.
Even so, Cooper noted, the language regarding use of the benefits at qualified out-of-state schools did not materially change. And, he continued, the agreement was "plain" in not including the tuition differential or technology fees.
"No matter which version of the master contract applies, plaintiff is not entitled to recover the value of a plan she never purchased, to compensate her for a cost that she will never incur," he wrote.
He also noted that students attending Florida universities on a plan bought before 2007 do not get the differential fee, either.
And he added that relying on marketing language to infer Florida Prepaid's intent is not relevant. Some of the materials Snyder said she received indicated she was buying "the cost of college at today's prices. What you pay now is guaranteed … no matter how much college costs increase in the future."
The master contract, Cooper wrote, is clear and unambiguous and the only intent that matters.
Snyder has appealed the case in the 1st District Court of Appeal. The sides are still submitting briefs, and have received an extension to complete that work.
Zebersky said he anticipates a different outcome.
"This is such an important case. It's one of those head-scratchers where you're like, I can't believe this is happening," he said. "It makes a big difference to those folks who are on a much more limited income."
Florida Prepaid stands by its interpretation.
"We are confident that the 1st DCA considering this will rule the same," Colavecchio said.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.