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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2010

Time to ease up on UH tuition increases

It's summer at the University of Hawai'i, and while many of the students and faculty take a break, there will be some heavy number-crunching up at Mānoa in the hot months ahead.

That's because, although there are still two years to go in a six-year schedule of tuition increases, administrators have to start the detailed process of mapping the six-year stretch after that, starting with the fall of 2012.

The process won't really heat up until the hearings and discussions throughout the UH community begin this fall, and the Board of Regents will have to sign off on the plan.

But considering the turbulence of recent budget cuts and considering that UH is such a big part of preparing the state for its future it's not too early to start thinking about this and for the community to pay attention. Charting the course ahead will take careful work, a reasonable balance of public funds and cost-cutting. The economy is improving but its rate of growth is still uncertain.

Tuition is an important part of a university's stability, but it's not the Horn of Plenty. Rely on it too much and students turn away. Given that one of the stated goals at UH is to boost rates of Hawai'i students earning degrees, an aggressive tuition schedule effectively bars the door, which defeats that whole purpose.

During past decades, UH resident tuition was famously cheap, even suppressed, but now the pace of increase has really quickened. Just look at the past three years: The Mānoa campus in-state combined tuition and fees rose a whopping 19.2 percent at the start of the 2007-2008 academic year, and then went up 16.1 and 14.5 percentage points each subsequent year a sharper incline than in most campuses in Western states.

A resident Mānoa undergraduate paid $7,168 in tuition and fees for the academic year that just concluded, up 59 percent from 2006. The local inflation rate over the same period was about 18 percent.

Hawai'i's tuition climb was justifiable because UH had catching up to do to meet some deferred goals, but those kinds of increases can't continue. Burdening graduates with $30,000 or more in student loans is condemning them to years in debt.

Administrators are considering many metrics as they look at tuition. Here's one: The aim is to raise the percentage of Hawai'i students attending a UH campus to 42.6 percent by 2015. Right now the system is ahead of its yearly pace: The 2009 goal was 35.6 percent and the actual number was 38.6 percent. Good, but the hilltop's a long way up.

Scanning a copy of the UH System Performance Measures, a similar pattern emerges throughout. On increasing degrees and certificates of achievement. On increasing extramural support for UH. On boosting graduates in areas of work shortage. In most areas, the university is at or above goal, with a steep climb ahead.

If UH is to continue to usher more students through its halls toward academic and career success, a difficult balance must be struck on the revenue side. There must be a rational tuition stepladder, coupled with financial aid for students climbing it. So far, UH is doing very well on the financial aid front, with Pell grants well ahead of goal levels, so that's encouraging.

The UH community and the taxpayers want to see its administration meet another stated objective, though: increased efficiency. The administration knows this and cites various plans for saving energy costs, ramping up online curriculum delivery, modernizing computer systems.

That's all fine, but Hawai'i's public also needs to see firm evidence that the university is maximizing the efficiency of its staff, the most critical elements of a successful university.

The administration, reeling from steep budget cuts, is hopeful that economic recovery will brighten the university's revenue picture, but we're still not clear how UH plans to pay for the generous pay increases it negotiated with its faculty. A 6.7 percent pay cut will be restored about a year from now, and faculty will see 3 percent raises in 2013 and 2014.

This is a critical juncture for the university, with construction soon to begin at a new campus and a 21st-century economy needing people in a wider range of currently underserved technical and social-service fields.

That's something people will see as an essential investment, as long as they also see that money is being spent where it will do the most good.