State government, local government, universities and independent authorities in Virginia are larded with debt and unfunded liabilities. No one, to my knowledge, has compiled a total inventory of public institutions’ exposure to pension obligations, leases, maintenance backlogs, infrastructure debt, economic development loans, and other long-term obligations. Institutions’ exposure to the vagaries of the economy and fluctuations of interest rates is largely hidden from public view.
One fund operating in the shadows is Virginia529’s tax-advantaged, pre-paid college tuition program. In contrast to the many entities that take on unwarranted risk, however, Virginia529 is a rare instance of sterling governance. The $2.7 billion fund for the prepaid tuition plan is defensively invested to guard against market downturns. It makes a conservative assumption about future returns on its investment portfolio — only 6.25% annually rather than 7.0% for the Virginia Retirement System. And rather than being chronically underfunded as the General Assembly has allowed the VRS to be, Virginia529 is 138% funded. Indeed, the plan is in such solid shape that actuaries judge that it has a 98% likelihood of meeting future obligations to the parents who are trusting that it will deliver on promises to pay for their children’s educations.
Apparently, that’s a problem.
In a review of the 529 plan, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) suggested that the plan is too conservatively run. Its intolerance of risk means that has built up unnecessarily large reserves that make the program unnecessarily expensive. By reducing the size of the pricing reserve on future contract sales from 10% to 7%, JLARC says, Virginia529 could lower the price of an eight-semester contract by $1,851.
Key lawmakers strongly favor the JLARC recommendations, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and they have pressured Virginia529 CEO Mary Morris to adopt the recommendations. Said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City ominously: “Sometimes there’s a very thin line between defiance and supreme independent confidence.”
True enough, the cost of participating in the Virginia529 plan has surged as the cost of college tuition has consistently outpaced inflation and income growth — a fact that can be attributed (a) to the General Assembly’s cutbacks in support for higher education, and (b) administrative bloat, mission creep and other policies pursued by colleges and universities themselves. Rather than price its plans over-optimistically as, say, long-term care insurers did a decade or two ago only to increase their premiums in order to maintain plan solvency, Virginia529’s governing board prices its product based on the conservative — one might say, cynical — assumption that tuition and fees at Virginia four-year institutions will increase by 5% in the 2018-19 academic year and by 6.5% each year thereafter.
Also true, participation in the plan has declined in the past 10 years as the price has risen, as seen in the chart above. Since fiscal 2009, the number of plan participants has declined from 71,800 to 63,900. Meanwhile, participating families are buying less coverage. The number of annual “semester units sold” has tanked 43% from 18,800 to 10,700 over the same period. Admittedly, that is a disappointing trend.
Virginia529’s investment performance has lagged industry benchmarks over one-, three- and five-year time horizons, says the JLARC report, although it has met or outperformed benchmarks for the 10-year period. “Virginia529 staff, the investment advisory committee, and the program’s investment consultant indicate that the fund is defensively positioned with the intention of protecting assets in down markets and periods of market instability.”
The JLARC report seems to accept that explanation. Staff has a bigger problem with Virginia529’s large pricing reserve. The pricing reserve is a portion of the contract price in excess of the amount needed to pay future contract benefits; the reserve generates surplus revenue to protect the fund against risk. JLARC recommends a guideline that would reduce the pricing reserve as long as the Virginia529 fund has assets in excess of 130% of liabilities. “Reducing the pricing reserve from 10 percent to seven percent would improve affordability of Prepaid529 contracts but would have only a minor impact to the fund.”
Virginia529 staff disagrees. First, reducing the pricing reserve on future contracts creates equitability concerns for those who already purchased contracts. In effect, risk would be shifted to people who paid higher premiums so newcomers could enjoy lower premiums. Second, future dips in portfolio performance could affect actuarial soundness and necessitate returning the reserve to a higher percentage, creating contract pricing volatility. And third, reducing the pricing reserve would have only a modest impact on contract prices. Slashing the reserve to 7% would reduce the price of an 8-semester contract of $67,880 by only $$1,851.
Bacon’s bottom line. Here’s what JLARC and Virginia legislators seem to miss: Virginia529 signs a contract with Virginia families locking in college tuition at a certain price. Virginia529 doesn’t promise to “try real hard” to fulfill the terms of the contract. It will fulfill the contract. It doesn’t have the luxury of raising taxes, or diverting revenue from other programs, or literally borrowing from its investment portfolio and promising to pay it back later, as the General Assembly has done with the VRS. The program should be applauded for adopting an actuarial gold standard.
While JLARC raises reasonable points worthy of discussion by the Virginia529 board, legislators need to butt out. They have no skin in the game. They don’t pay a price if Virginia529 fails to fulfill its promises. If lawmakers want to make college tuition more affordable, they should either (a) increase state funding for public institutions, or (b) do the really hard work of driving costs out of the higher-ed system. Otherwise, brow-beating the Virginia529 board is cheap grandstanding.