When Gov. Ben Cayetano put forth the idea of sending the states A and B students to the University of Hawaii for free in his State of the State address, it was the first time he had mentioned the program publicly.
It was also the first time University of Hawaii officials had heard of it.
After facing years of budget cuts, the idea of suddenly awarding scholarships to 4,000 students a year has caught administrators by surprise.
And it has raised a debate about whether the program should reward the smartest students or improve access to college for those who can least afford it.
"Basically, Im concerned not so much for the B students as for the needy students," said UH President Kenneth Mortimer, who is retiring and will not be in office when, or if, the program begins.
"I think its wonderful that people are thinking of how to improve peoples chances to go to college and also to stay at home," he said. "Any B student who has need should get it. The basic question is: What are you trying to achieve?"
Cayetano has proposed using $175 million from the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund and $25 million from the states tobacco settlement to create the Hawaii New Century Scholarship. Interest from the scholarship fund would allow any public or private high school graduate with a B or better average to go to any University of Hawaii campus for free for their freshman year.
The program would require legislative approval.
Wayne Kimura, deputy director of the Department of Budget and Finance, said the $200 million base of the fund would remain intact in case the state faces a major natural disaster. The fund would grow as Hawaii continues to receive more tobacco settlement money.
Rep. Nestor Garcia, vice chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, raised a critical question in a hearing yesterday on the issue: "What if theres a disaster?" Garcia said. "Are we still obligated to provide a scholarship?"
Doris Ching, vice president for student affairs, said the scholarship program would have to rely on fair weather. The university could not absorb the cost of the scholarships into its annual budget, she said.
"Hawaii has really always been an education state," she said. "Its just over the last 10 years that weve been conditioned to expect less from the state."
State Insurance Commissioner Wayne Metcalf said he has no objection to using the hurricane money to start a scholarship program. The lack of a hurricane in recent years has meant that many private insurers have started selling policies in Hawaii again, he said.
The $200 million would generate about $12 million in interest each year for merit scholarships. Thats enough to pay for 3,800 students at the Manoa campus, the most expensive UH school.
UH gives about $15 million a year in tuition waivers now, and 70 percent of that amount goes to financially needy students, Ching said.
"Our priority is access to education," Ching said. "I think the governor is proposing a different direction. I think its pointed at keeping our brightest students here. Its a long-range plan to educate them here and keep them here. It would improve our work force."
Colleen Sathre, vice president for planning and policy, said about one in every six students gets some kind of tuition waiver.
"That still leaves a number of students out," Sathre said. "Anything the state can do in this regard would be very helpful."