On paper, tuition for the typical local undergraduate student enrolled in the University of Hawaii at Manoa next year will run around $9,100.

But here’s the caveat: students must also fork over $760 in additional fees, effectively raising students’ bills an additional 8 percent.

Such mandatory fees, meant to cover expenses such as programming, publications, student government and technology, are commonplace at universities and colleges across the country. But critics say they can impose an unnecessary — and often unexpected — burden on students, who often overlook such extra expenses when considering whether they can afford a school.

“Student fees have been something of a known irritant for years, often criticized as a kind of stealth, second tuition imposed on unsuspecting families,” reported ProPublica late last month, pointing to the sheer absurdity of some fees such as Worcester State University’s “pedestrian access fee.” (The much-ballyhooed fee helps fund campus sidewalk maintenance.)

And UH Manoa isn’t alone. UH’s other nine campuses have mandatory student fees, too. And so do several other colleges and universities across the state. The fees range from nothing to nearly $2,800. (See below for a breakdown.)

Fees typically vary by program and specific courses. At UH Manoa, for example, undergraduate students in the architecture, business, dental hygiene and engineering programs pay an additional $1,760 in fees to cover extra expenses such as lab costs and equipment, bringing resident students’ annual bill up to nearly $11,000.

Undergraduate students in UH Manoa’s nursing program pay an extra $2,760 on top of flat tuition rates.

All of the universities and colleges across the state also have course-specific fees, a Civil Beat review of tuition and fee websites reveals. Certain studio art and natural science courses, for example, often have additional fees attached to them to cover lab activities and other costs. There are also one-time fees charged to some students to cover services such as orientation, application processing, graduation and registration changes.

Still, critics question whether it’s fair to charge students mandatory fees for various programming — particularly when it’s unclear that all students benefit from that programming. In some cases, colleges and universities on the mainland have used fees to skirt tuition caps.

The $760 in student fees at UH Manoa — which by far charges its students the most in extra expenses — covers a range of programming, including transportation and athletics. But not all students at the campus take advantage of those services.

Chad Higa, a senior studying computer science who’s attended UH Manoa since 2006, said he’s witnessed fees increase alongside tuition.

“Going from there to what it is now, it’s kind of a dramatic change,” said Higa, 25. “I didn’t expect tuition to be going up that much. And then there were all the student fees that were added on that slowly started to pile up as the semesters progressed.”

Higa said he doesn’t directly benefit from a number of the campus’s mandatory fees — particularly that which covers transportation and a city bus pass. Even though he bought a pass to park on campus, UH Manoa still charges Higa for a bus pass, he said.

“I think the students would benefit from having a choice of fees,” Higa said. “Majority of the time, if you’re an in-state student, you’ll have a car, and I think if you’re going to be purchasing a parking pass you should have something to offset the bus pass.”

But Luoluo Hong, UH Hilo’s vice chancellor for student affairs, emphasized that student fees aren’t user fees.

Student fees, Hong said, are intended to cover the costs of programs and activities that enhance a student’s time at UH Hilo but might not be directly associated with academics.

UH Hilo charges full-time students $304 in additional fees. That covers the costs of running various student services such as student publications, the UH Hilo Student Association, student health and the Student Life Center.

“They really do represent the cost of what we think is part of the educational experience … and could potentially benefit every student,” she said. “If we distribute the costs, the cost to any one student is very minimal.”

Hong pointed to UH Hilo’s student health fee as an example. The fee, which currently runs at $14 per school year, covers the medical clinic’s personnel, supply and other operating expenses as well as counseling services and health promotion, according to Hong.

Even if a student doesn’t use the campus’s health services for an entire year, the services likely benefitted someone with whom the student has a lot of contact — a roommate, for example — thus creating an “indirect benefit,” Hong said, noting that UH Hilo also receives state and federal grants to help keep minimize some of its student fees.

Are Student Fees Transparent Enough?

Still, some say universities and colleges aren’t doing enough to make fee information available to prospective students.

The U.S. Department of Education has made it a priority to make the cost of college transparent to students through resources such as the College Affordability and Transparency Center.

Some institutions, including UH Hilo and UH West Oahu, have followed suit, posting breakdowns of the fees online.

But other campuses, such as UH Manoa and Chaminade University, either list the fees in bulk without breaking them down or don’t list them at all.

Critics say limited accessibility to fee information is especially troubling given rising tuition rates. At UH Manoa, for example, resident tuition is expected to rise to roughly $12,000 by the 2016-17 school year.

Colleges and universities use fees for a variety of reasons, including to cover the additional costs of specialized programs and make it more evident to students what extra services they’re paying for, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education spokesman Andrew Mytelka.

Mytelka compared the practice to what airlines do with special baggage or meal fees.

Most students who base their enrollment decisions on costs focus primarily on tuition, Mytelka said, meaning that “fees can be less of an obstacle.”

“If you arrive at the airport having spent $1,000 on tickets, paying $25 extra for a suitcase seems like nothing,” he said. “There’s a lot of consumer psychology involved in fees.”

Hong said UH officials are well aware of the concerns, with Board of Regents members grappling over proposed fee increases at nearly every meeting.

The Board of Regents establishes tuition, fees and other charges in accordance with the law, according to the body’s policy book.

But most student fees “are entirely student-driven,” according to UH Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Lui Hokoana. Students typically propose the fees to the Board of Regents, Hokoana said, citing recent proposals to increase student fees at UH West Oahu and Kauai Community College, both of which were drafted entirely by students.

Moreover, Board of Regents policy requires that any funds collected be used only for the fee’s specified purpose, Hokoana said, adding that students decide how to spend the monies.

And financial aid typically covers student fees at UH, Hokoana said.

Some Universities Roll Most Fees Into Tuition

Some universities, however, choose instead to incorporate most of the student fees into flat tuition rates.

Take Hawaii Pacific University. Aside from a various one-time expenses, HPU only charges its full-time undergraduate students about $200 per year to cover student activities and technology. Any other expenses are attached to listed tuition costs.

“It’s a tradition that’s been carried on here to try to be as transparent as possible and put tuition out there so families can plan,” said Scott Stensrud, special assistant to the president for student retention. “The fees can be in the thousands of dollars … that gets very confusing for students that are trying to compare the total cost of attendance (at various schools).”

But that tendency has its critics, too.

HPU officials announced that tuition for the university’s graduate nursing program next semester would be increasing by more than 50 percent, from $750 per credit hour to $1,150 per credit hour.

The tuition hike, announced in late February, has outraged students, with some saying the notice’s timing has given them little opportunity to seek financial aid.

“The most frustrating part is already being in the department and feeling like you’re stuck,” said Emily Brewer, a Family Nurse Practitioner student who’s also HPU’s graduate student representative. “I’ve had a year in the program, and they just change it on us without any notice or consideration for us, without representation.”

When explaining the increase, Stensrud cited new fees attached to the clinical part of the degree program — a segment that requires each student to shadow nursing professionals, or preceptors, for several semesters.

“In this particular case it was the market condition, in a sense, that forced the changes in increase in cost that we had to deal with,” Stensrud said, adding that students in the past weren’t charged a preceptor fee in order to access clinical sites.

According to Stensrud, the university made an active decision to incorporate those costs into tuition rather than impose them as an added fee.

“We try to be as transparent as possible,” Stensrud said. “We have tried to roll everything into tuition for the program so that it’s very easy for students to see and understand what their costs are going to be.”

But Brewer said the news was all but transparent.

She recalls attending a meeting in February at which the graduate nursing program director and HPU dean announced that the university would be foisting mild increases on all students — but they didn’t specify how much the increases would amount to.

Shortly thereafter students received an email announcing the university-wide increases worth between 3 percent and 8 percent. The message didn’t, however, include information for the graduate nursing program.

Brewer had to click a link to find that increases would be taking a much heavier toll on the graduate nursing program.

“It’s like they hoped that nobody would notice,” Brewer said.

In fact, Hong and other UH spokespeople said that universities often choose to keep fees separate in an effort to maintain transparency.

According to Hong, UH Hilo recruiters always ensure that handouts include both tuition and fees.

“We make it really clear that this is what they have to consider,” she said. “We’re trying to be more transparent about the true cost of education.”

Instead of just putting all expenses — both academic and extracurricular — under the tuition umbrella, UH chooses to keep fees separate so that students know exactly where they’re money is going, Hong said.

Here’s a breakdown of undergraduate fees. (Graduate programs often have even heftier fees — check each institution’s individual tuition website to learn more.)

Campus/Program Tuition 2013-14
(resident, full-time)
Mandatory Student
UHM/General $9,144 $760
UHM/Architecture $9,144 $1,760
UHM/Business $9,144 $1,760
UHM/Dental $9,144 $1,760
UHM/Engineering (non-freshmen) $9,144 $1,760
UHM/Nursing $9,144 $2,760
UH Hilo/General $6,192 $304
UHWO/General $6,096 $5
Hawaii CC $106/credit $67
HCC $106/credit $15
KCC $106/credit $30
Kauai CC $106/credit $54
LCC $106/credit $27.50
UH Maui college $106/credit $63
WCC $106/credit $20
HPU/General $19,980 $200
HPU/Oceanography, etc. $19,980 $200
HPU/pre-nursing $19,980 $200
HPU/Nursing $25,650 $200
Chaminade/general $19,200 $180
Chaminade/nursing $23,660 $240
BYU (Non-Latter Day Saints) $9,260 none

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