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Editorial: Financial aid for Class of 2020

In place of in-person commencement at high schools, colleges and universities, other sorts of graduation salutes are now in the works, ranging from online ceremonies to congratulatory roadside signs. More than one dozen virtual events were staged last week by degree programs at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Before COVID-19 forced much of the economy to shut down, students poised to graduate this year were looking at sunny economic forecasts touting a U.S. job market ranked among the strongest in recent decades. The coronavirus outbreak has swiftly darkened the outlook.

In a matter of months, Hawaii has plummeted from a ranking among states with the lowest joblessness rates to the highest. And last week, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned that the nation may be in for a prolonged climb to exit recession.

In recent years, about 55% of Hawaii’s public high school grads have promptly enrolled in higher education. This year, given the scarcity of employment options, every senior should be sizing up post-secondary options. Since, according to state figures, prerequisite for well over half of all jobs here is some level of higher-ed, more coursework is a sensible move.

The state’s sole public option for higher education, the University of Hawaii system, has an edge over many competitors in that in-state tuition is less than the national average — a relative bargain for anyone worried about the potential burden of student debt. Further, the UH’s community colleges are among the most affordable two-year schools nationwide.

Even so, affordability is a relative term. Would-be college students have long pointed to Hawaii’s high cost of living as a financial barrier to enrollment. And given the economic worries touched off by the pandemic, that barrier now stands higher for many households.

A recent policy brief issued by Sumner La Croix and James Mak, research fellows at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO), suggests that state lawmakers should consider revamping the existing Hawaii Promise Program as a means to further lower the barrier to higher ed and, over the course of coming decades, help lift the local economy.

According to UHERO projections, the holder of a UH associate’s degree on average makes $360,000 more in his or her lifetime over a high school classmate who never went to college. The average UH bachelor’s degree-holder who works in Hawaii makes $950,000 more.

Established in 2017, Hawaii Promise provides “last-dollar” tuition assistance for students with needs not met by other forms of financial aid, such as federal grants and scholarships. So far, the program has served about 1,500 community college students, with an average award of $1,200.

Before the 2020 Legislature’s regular session was suspended in March, Gov. David Ige and state lawmakers were supporting a bill that would expand the program to include four-year college programs — focusing on teaching, health care, social work or engineering degrees, along with recipient commitment to work in Hawaii for at least three years.

While the bill’s current status is murky, what’s clear is that many of this year’s grads are contending with unexpected immediate challenges, including financial.

The UHERO researchers propose tapping a portion of Hawaii’s CARES Act funding — allocated by Congress for coronavirus aid, relief and economic security efforts — as emergency financial aid for Class of 2020 high school and college grads for two years, starting this fall.

The brief proposes that Hawaii Promise — with some adjustments to its current makeup — could serve as a vehicle for a COVID-19 scholarship program. For the sake of preventing economic scarring resulting from a virus-induced recession, it’s an idea well worth examining.

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