Two bills that would appropriate millions for low-income students to attend University of Hawaii schools cleared their first hurdle at a House Higher Education Committee hearing Thursday.

Another pair of companion bills in the senate have also been written with the help of UH and the governor’s office, Sen. Kai Kahele, Higher Education Committee chair said. One of those bills, Senate Bill 1162, has been scheduled for its first hearing next week.

Under the “Hawaii Promise” bills, the state would pay a resident’s unmet tuition needs after they’ve accepted all financial aid available to them via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. As long as funding is still available, scholarships would be given out on a first-come, first-served basis.

16 may 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
HB 1594 and SB 1162 could make it possible for all low-income UH students to graduate debt-free. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senate Bill 135 and its companion, House Bill 1591, would allow students to attend UH community colleges for free, while SB 1162 and House Bill 1594 aim to cover tuition at all campuses including the universities.

To be eligible for the Hawaii Promise, community college and university students will need to take a certain number of credits per semester. University students must maintain a certain grade point average, which is still unspecified.

Both House bills were passed with amendments Tuesday and received “defective dates” (a common practice during session) of 2050. If all goes well, committee Chair Justin Woodson told Civil Beat after the hearing that the original effective date of July 2017 will be reinstated.

That’s just in time for the new academic year.

HB 1594, which targets all UH campuses, was amended to appropriate $11.5 million dollars — about $2 million less than the original proposal — and require students to take 12 credits per semester instead of 15. The bill will also be changed to clarify undergraduate students seeking any degree or certificate are eligible for the Hawaii Promise.

The amendments were proposed after speaking with UH parties including professors and students, Woodson said.

He’s hopeful HB 1594 will become law, adding “it’s very unusual” for all representatives to sponsor a bill. Public testimony was overwhelmingly supportive of the bills.

“This particular (bill) can do a lot that all of our community can benefit from, no matter where you come from or who you represent,” said Woodson.

During the hearing, committee member Rep. Richard Onishi pressed UH representatives about their ability to track scholarship recipients and ensure they were keeping up with requirements.

“We’re concerned with you guys (UH) reporting that to us … moving forward, we would need to know the success of the program so as to whether or not we would consider continuing funding,” Onishi said.

John Morton, UH Vice President of Community Colleges, said the university already tracks how many Pell Grant recipients graduate and could provide the Legislature with similar data about the Hawaii Promise program.

“We know… our Pell students actually graduate at a higher rate than our non-Pell students,” said Risa Dickson, UH vice president for academic planning and policy.

She added that the Hawaii Promise could prompt more students to fill out the FAFSA and complete college more quickly.

Pressed again by Oshiri, Morton clarified that students could not get scholarship monies back. Funding goes directly to the university or bookstore, Morton said.

Meiyi Wong, a Honolulu Community College student testified for HB 1591. She said she had never worked a job that paid more than $13 per hour. While Wong said her father helped her with tuition, she said she would be unable to afford school on her own. Many of her classmates are living paycheck to paycheck and can barely afford living expenses and tuition, she said.

Two other students spoke in favor of HB 1594, though many more students and faculty submitted written testimony. Only one individual opposed the bill in testimony.

After a similar program for Tennessee community college students was passed in 2015, colleges saw a 6 percent increase in enrollment. Oregon, San Francisco and Chicago have already committed to offering community college students free tuition, while governors in New York and Rhode Island proposed plans this year to cover two years of community college.

All House members and 19 out of 25 senators co-sponsored bills to provide tuition for all campuses. Each bill has been referred to committees on higher education and finances.

The state doesn’t set money aside for scholarships, according to the bill, but UH gave out $46.7 million in tuition-funded financial aid. Even between UH and private scholarships, and federal aid, the bill said some students still struggle to afford school.

The bills cite a college affordability study by the Institute for Research on Higher Education at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Hawaii has the nation’s most affordable community colleges and was ranked the third most affordable state for education, according to the study.

Also referenced in the bill is the state’s “55 by ‘25” campaign, which aims to see 55 percent of Hawaii adults hold a college degree by 2025.

For local families making less than $30,000 per year, attending college full-time eats up a quarter of their income, the study found. Hawaii gives out just $7 of financial aid per student compared to the U.S. average of $474, according to the report.

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