1. Opinion

Column: 30 years and more than 1 million families later: celebrating the magnitude of Florida Prepaid's college savings plans

Thirty years ago, a visionary Miami businessman named Stanley Tate worked with lawmakers and then-Gov. Bob Martinez to establish one of the nation's first prepaid college programs, which they envisioned as a cost-effective way to help families save for postsecondary education.

They wanted to keep young talent from leaving the state and help lower-income families pay for college in a way that spread out the cost over time — making higher education an attainable goal for Florida families.

Now, as we enter the final days of this 30th Open Enrollment period, the magnitude of their vision is abundantly clear in the number of families that the Florida Prepaid College Board has helped. More than 1.1 million families have started Prepaid Plans in Florida during the past three decades, and over 460,000 students have attended college using a Prepaid Plan.

These numbers represent real people who have been given significant opportunity — for themselves and for our state. Mr. Tate has called it one of the rare win-win opportunities of his career.

Yet we know we still have work to do, because student loan debt continues to plague Florida and the nation, sparking great concerns about long-term impacts on the economy and quality of life for college graduates. Today, according to Forbes, student loan debt is at $1.5 trillion. College graduates in Florida with student loans owe an average of $24,000, and for many this means delaying their plans to purchase a house or start a business, or even a family.

Thanks to Florida Prepaid's 30-year legacy, Florida families have a chance to take a different path and avoid such debt. Today, we are the nation's largest and longest-running prepaid tuition program in the nation.

I thank the Legislature for embracing this program from the beginning, and for sharing our founders' vision. Many other states are no longer offering prepaid college savings options, or are facing financial woes. Yet Florida Prepaid is thriving. This presents a unique opportunity for Florida families. My hope is that parents, grandparents and guardians will take advantage of our nationally recognized program.

If you are a parent or grandparent reading this, use these last few days of the annual Open Enrollment period, which ends April 30, to explore what Florida Prepaid offers. Studies show that children with dedicated college savings are 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college. So, find a plan that fits your budget, and invest in your child's future by locking in future college costs for less, allowing you to save, worry-free, with a Florida Prepaid Plan.

John D. Rood is chairman of the Florida Prepaid College Board.