Lawsuit seeks full tuition and fees for PACT participants

William Evans

A judge’s ruling in a lawsuit pertaining to the Prepaid Affordable College Tuition plan means that all 42,000 participants of the PACT program will be impacted by the outcome of the litigation.

Circuit Judge Johnny Hardwick of Montgomery determined that the case is class-action litigation that encompasses all participants of the PACT program because of the similar legal issues the participants of the PACT program face.

Doyle Fuller, an attorney representing some of the parents who filed the suit, said the litigation is predicated upon whether the state can alter a contract.

Fuller said the PACT board has reneged on its pledge to cover certain mandatory fees for its participants.

“[The PACT board] argues that they have the legal right to define what fees they cover,” he said. “This is something of a new issue—whether a state agency can unilaterally alter its obligations under a contract. To my mind, it has never been addressed by the courts of this state.”

George Beck, the attorney for the PACT board, said mandatory fees, as understood in the contract the participants entered into, have been covered by the PACT program.

“The PACT board is arguing that they are paying all of the fees that are mandatory according to the statute,” Beck said.

Beck said fees for lodging, dining dollars and books are examples of fees that are not covered by the contract participants entered into.

He also said Hardwick has ruled to separate the plaintiffs into two groups based upon whether they enrolled in the PACT program before or after May 2001.

According to the Associated Press, this date is when “the Legislature took out part of the PACT law that said the parents’ payment allowed their child to go to college without further tuition costs or mandatory fees.”

Both Doyle and Beck said the root of the issue concerns money.

“Regardless of what tuition expenses and fees are paid, the college or the state will have to come up with the money,” Beck said. “Should money run out, the board is looking to the court for what to do.”

The PACT program, created in 1989, was designed to have parents pay in fixed amounts to send a child to an in-state university for four years with tuition and mandatory fees covered by the payments, according to the Associated Press.

When the PACT program encountered financial trouble in 2009 due to an economic downturn coupled with escalating tuition costs, the Legislature decided to rescue the PACT program by appropriating $548 million over 13 years.

Because tuition continued to escalate at the state’s most popular universities, the University of Alabama System and Auburn University, the program’s financial consultant determined that the PACT would need an additional appropriation of $269 million if tuition hikes continued at their current pace.

Elice Jackson, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, said he would have the government raise taxes to fund the ailing PACT program so as to cover the tuition and mandatory fees the PACT program pledged to pay for.

“They might want to consider terminating that [the PACT program] for the future, though,” he said.