It used to be that when we talked about the state of education in the islands, the discussion would usually revolve around the public school system.

No longer. The University of Hawaii system — in particular the system’s flagship campus, the University of Hawaii at Manoa — is increasingly being seen more as a liability than an asset.

The “Wonder Blunder” (aka the fundraising concert scam that drained at least $200,000 from UH-Manoa’s coffers), the firing of former UH Chancellor Tom Apple and budget shortfalls and fiscal issues are just some of the headline-grabbing issues that have rocked UH-Manoa.

Sign at UH Manoa at the Ka Leo vendor fair for new student orientation. August 21, 2014

Rising tuition costs are greatest at UH Manoa, the University of Hawaii’s flagship campus.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

However the biggest issue of significance to the general public is the rising cost of tuition. Trends in College Pricing 2014, a report from the College Board that examined resident tuition and other costs charged by state universities across the country, found that UH Manoa is now the 19th-most expensive state school in the country.

This is no surprise when you consider how much tuition costs now not only throughout the UH system — a system that includes not only such colleges such as UH West Oahu and UH Hilo, but several community colleges — but as at UH Manoa itself.

The February issue of Hawaii Business had an article on student debt that showcased tuition figures from 2014. Resident tuition at UH Manoa is at least $10,610 per year and non-resident, $29,402. UH Hilo charges $6,842 for in-state tuition, and my alma mater, UH West Oahu, demands $6,948 per year.

Even the state’s community colleges, which are normally seen as the cheapest and most easily available educational option for Hawaii’s college-age population, have hiked their tuition rates by more than 70 percent, according to the same issue of Hawaii Business.

Add all this up and any rational, logical person can easily come up with the same conclusion that I have reached: Attending college or university in Hawaii is no longer a financial bargain.

I state this not as some aloof, outside observer of higher education in Hawaii but as someone who attended and graduated from a college here in this state. I have some skin in the game.

Watching tuition costs spiral upward may just strike me as sad, but students going to school within the UH system may more likely see them as unjust. One UH Manoa student told me on a Civil Beat Facebook thread that she works two jobs and has a scholarship in order to pay for her schooling.

What also should be taken into account is what I call the “six degrees of integration” — how tuition costs must be taken into account along with the cost of living, housing and other costs for college students. It should be remembered that simply paying off tuition is not the only concern for college students — they have to buy food, purchase clothing, pay rent and cover other mundane, day-to-day costs. Bigger costs in one area, such as tuition, can have an impact on other economic aspects of daily life for college students, and I don’t think I need to go into detail about how expensive and costly living in Hawaii can be.

UH Costs Count More Than Other Campuses

Some people may wonder: What does it matter if the UH system raises its tuition rates? Don’t private colleges and universities in the state charge more as well? What’s the big deal?

It’s true that some major private colleges such as Hawaii Pacific University ($20,930) and Chaminade University ($20,810) have tuition rates that are fairly competitive with UH-Manoa. However, the UH system has far more students than HPU, Chaminade and other private schools in the state. Therefore, since the UH system educates more people and awards more degrees to local residents, its financial well being and its rates of tuition are of great concern to parents, their college-age children as well as other potential applicants in the state.

And speaking of well-being, it is only fair to note that UH-Manoa has suffered from cutbacks in state funding over the past few years — about 27 percent from 2007-12. Therefore, it is not surprising that tuition rates have gone up as a percentage of revenues for UH-Manoa.

Still, declining legislative appropriations, while admittedly a plausible reason for hiking tuition rates, cannot account wholly for the wholesale alteration of the UH system of colleges from affordability to near luxury.

The propensity for both UH Manoa and the UH system of colleges to simply raise tuition year after year has got to come to some kind of end. At the very least, there needs to be a moratorium at some point.

If all things were equal and the cost of living in Hawaii was at least moderately affordable with reasonable rents and decent wages for even part-time jobs, maybe raising tuition wouldn’t be as much of an issue. However, higher tuition costs create further challenges for students already having to deal with the daily expenses of living in the islands.

State colleges and universities differ from all other types of schools in that it is their duty to educate the local citizens of their particular state. This includes providing an affordable amount of education.

If the UH system continues to keep hiking up tuition and costs to students attending its campus, public collegiate education may one day become largely out of reach for most of Hawaii’s residents. And that would be a much bigger blunder than the Wonder Blunder.

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