|This story has been corrected.|
University of Hawaii officials are considering raising tuition in 2012, but the price tag to attend the 10-campus UH system won’t be determined for nearly another year, leaving students little time to budget for their biggest college expense.
As the UH system enjoys record high enrollment, the unpopular possibility of another, unknown tuition hike beginning in fall 2012 continues to hang over Hawaii’s public university system.
“It’s definitely a major issue,” said Andrew Itsuno, UH-Manoa’s student body president. “Students are applying for a lot of scholarships. But if tuition does increase, scholarships won’t increase with tuition.”
A Hawaii resident who attends UH-Manoa as a full-time undergraduate student currently pays $3,792 per semester in tuition, plus $314 per semester in mandatory students fees. Tuition will rise to $4,200 per semester in spring 2012, when the current increases are scheduled to end.
UH administrators originally wanted to have a new tuition schedule approved and in place by last January, to give students and their families more than a year to figure out how they would pay for the increased costs to attend UH campuses.
Instead, as legislators struggle to close a two-year, $1.3 billion budget deficit, UH officials won’t know how much money they’ll receive from the state until the end of the legislative session. They’ll then spend the next few months crunching census data and other numbers before making a tuition proposal to the UH Board of Regents in early fall, UH President M.R.C. Greenwood said.
If the regents agree in concept to raise tuition, the new costs would not be finalized until January, Greenwood said.
Michael Butindaro, 24, who delivers Papa John’s pizzas to pay for his UH-Manoa expenses, has at least another two years to get his bachelor’s degree in social work and then plans to go on to graduate school at Manoa.
“If the tuition goes up much more, I might as well go out of state,” said Butindaro, who hopes to graduate with his undergraduate degree in 2013. “I pay for everything and everything’s going up. It’s definitely going to drive out students.”
Any tuition increase will be greeted by powerful opponents, including Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who earned his master’s degree in sociology and a doctorate in American studies at UH.
“When it comes to financing the UH, raising tuition should be the last option on the table,” Abercrombie said in a statement to the Star-Advertiser. “In a time of recession, we must maximize the opportunity for people to pursue higher education. To raise tuition now would go against that.”
Greenwood understands Abercrombie’s concerns. “While I agree with the governor’s sentiments that public education is a public good and the public should support it, … whether or not that is a realistic scenario given the current situation is a different question,” she said.
State Rep. Mark Takai (D, Newtown-Pearl City) served as UH-Manoa’s student body president and graduated from UH with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the early 1990s and now serves on the House Higher Education Committee.
“When I was at the university, we prided ourselves in being everything to everyone,” Takai said. “In this day and age, we can’t expect the University of Hawaii to be everything to everyone because we can’t afford that model. … We’ve got to find a formula that is fair. Whatever that is, it’s going to be more expensive than it was yesterday in terms of tuition.”
It’s difficult to calculate the economic effect of a tuition increase on Hawaii’s economy without any details of the exact costs, said Leroy Laney, a Hawaii Pacific University professor of economics and finance.
“But it’s like any other increase — be it a tax increase or some kind of fare increase or a shipping rate increase,” Laney said. “It affects people’s pocketbooks. … It seems that these kind of things happen at bad times. The economy is still fragile. The timing is not good, but it never is.”
While the big question of state funding for UH remains uncertain, UH administrators have been busy trying to streamline operations, cut costs and reach out to families at places like shopping malls to help them qualify for scholarships and federal Pell grants to ease the pain of the existing tuition increases.
Financial assistance for some groups, such as low-income Filipinos, Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, has quadrupled since 2005, said Linda Johnsrud, UH executive vice president for academic affairs/provost.
Having more UH students qualify for Pell grants and financial assistance doesn’t help UH administrators balance their own budget, Greenwood said, “but it helps students balance theirs.”
UH adopted its current tuition schedule in 2005 and Johnsrud rolled out the plan before 37 separate campus and community groups. The meetings generated 1,000 pages of testimony, Johnsrud said.
This time, UH officials also will have to explain why tuition needs to go up at a time of unprecedented enrollment.
Tuition for a full-time, in-state, undergraduate student at UH-Manoa covers just 46 percent of the cost to educate the student, Takai said. As examples of where the money goes, tuition pays about 60 percent of UH’s payroll while covering 100 percent of Manoa’s $25 million annual energy bill, Greenwood said.
“Tuition is not a slush fund,” she said. “We’re paying real costs, real things that we can’t operate the university without. … If we don’t raise tuition, we might not be able to pay our electric bills.”
Keith Ordonez, a 22-year-old UH senior majoring in English, has financial problems of his own.
He lives at home with his family in Liliha and works full time at McDonald’s to cover all of his UH expenses on his own.
Ordonez doesn’t qualify for financial aid “because my family’s too middle class,” he said, adding, “But they have to pay their mortgage, so my entire paycheck goes straight to UH.”
He rarely goes out with friends, “but if I do, someone’s going to have to treat me because I am struggling,” Ordonez said. “I literally get by on the kindness of other people. That’s the truth.”
While Greenwood emphasizes that every year of post-secondary education translates into higher salaries later in life, Ordonez hopes to get a master’s degree from UH and one day teach English at a UH community college.
“For now,” Ordonez said, “I’m just hoping my college degree can get me a better job than at McDonald’s.”
» State general funds to the University of Hawaii pay about 60 percent of UH’s payroll. This article had said tuition pays about 60 percent of the payroll. Also, the first name of Linda Johnsrud, the University of Hawaii’s executive vice president for academic affairs/provost, was misspelled, and her title was listed as vice president for academic planning and policy.