Regents weigh UH-Hilo tuition hikes

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The University of Hawaii at Hilo wants to put the brakes on its rapidly increasing tuition.

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The University of Hawaii at Hilo wants to put the brakes on its rapidly increasing tuition.

Members of the UH Board of Regents will hear a new proposal Thursday for tuition hikes that would begin in 2017.

During the past three years, annual tuition hikes ranged from about 4 percent to more than 7 percent.

The tuition schedule being proposed, however, includes no increases for the 2017-18 academic year and no more than 1 percent in each of the following two years.

In the face of flagging enrollment numbers on the Hilo campus the past several years, the tuition proposals are an attempt to entice more students to invest in their educations, according to Chancellor Donald Straney.

“The new tuition schedule is set to lower barriers to students coming into college, to encourage students to get two- and four-year degrees,” he said. “Price should not be a barrier to attend college.”

He added that in addition to the smaller annual increases, UH-Hilo will continue to maintain the same level of scholarship support it offers from tuition revenue.

“Twelve percent of the tuition is returned to students in the form of need-based aid,” Straney said. “And we give on the order of $1.5 million in merit aid every year, again from tuition. … We should end up with college being affordable.”

The current academic year’s annual tuition for resident undergraduates is $6,912, an increase of 4 percent compared to the previous year, while tuition for nonresident undergrads is $10,728, an increase of 3.9 percent. That marked a significantly smaller increase compared with previous years as the result of a re-evaluation of tuition performed by administrators last year.

“We have a current schedule for tuition that ends next year. It was a six-year proposal, re-evaluated after three years, and so last year we did that re-evaluation and decided that some of our assumptions about how fast tuition should grow no longer applied,” Straney said. “We expected growth in electric bills that were steeper than they actually turned out to be. So, we were able to reduce tuition (increases) for this year and next year, I think from 7 percent to 4 percent. So, next year is set.”

The proposed tuition schedules for academic years 2017-18 through 2019-20 go even further to lessen the impact on students.

Administrators hope to freeze tuition costs in academic year 2017-18, followed by modest 1 percent increases each of the following two years for resident students and even smaller increases for nonresidents of 0.4 percent for undergrads and 0.5 percent for graduate students.

Students on campus Tuesday afternoon said they were happy about the prospect of slowing down tuition hikes.

Jonelle Johnson, an 18-year-old freshman from Oregon, said she hopes the smaller increases will encourage more people to go back to school.

“I think keeping the price consistent will really help. I’d like to see (tuition) stay flat,” she said. “I have friends who want to go to college, but they can’t afford it, or they can’t get the financial aid. So many want to go but can’t.”

Deanna Obenauf, 26, who operates her own business, Big Island Massage Therapy, with her boyfriend, said she definitely will benefit from keeping tuition low when it comes time to pay the bills.

“Being able to attend school and pay your bills, this makes that financially feasible,” she said.

Obenauf said she opted to study psychology after losing a client to suicide.

“In my business, people really open up, and I’d like to be able to recognize those red flags and be able to understand and help,” she said. “He was a soldier with PTSD. It was really shocking.”

She added that she’s been lucky compared to her peers that tuition hasn’t been a big barrier to attending college.

“We have to think more about what is preventing students from attending. It’s a big concern,” Obenauf said. “Tuition can cause students to drop out or change their career paths. It plays a big part.”

Despite understanding that the campus is working to lessen tuition’s impact on students, 18-year-old Ryley Antolin said he’d like to see tuition go down in the coming years. A supporter of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president, Antolin said he thinks education and health care should be a taxpayer-supported right for all Americans.

“High school is sometimes not enough,” he said. “I have friends who say tuition is killer on them. … Some have to work double shifts. And (tuition) is still too much.”

Following discussion of the proposed tuition schedule at Thursday morning’s Board of Regents meeting, the university system will arrange a series of 11 hearings on campuses across the state, including three on the Big Island, said system spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.

“After that, the proposal will be amended depending on the public input and then go before the board for approval, sometime in the summer,” he said.

The Board of Regents will meet at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in University Classroom Building Room 127, also known as “the fishbowl.”

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For more information, visit www.hawaii.edu/offices/bor/archive.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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