The University of Hawaii’s request to expand a tuition assistance program to its four-year campuses will not clear the Legislature after a House committee voted Wednesday to maintain the program only at community colleges.

The House Finance Committee passed Senate Bill 316 on Wednesday. It would provide UH community colleges $2.5 million a year for the Hawaii Promise Program, which currently covers tuition for eligible students. Lawmakers are also tasking UH with collecting data on how effective the program is in terms of graduation rates.

The measure is likely to be approved by the Senate before going to Gov. David Ige for his signature. Ige had supported UH’s original budget request for $19 million each of the next two fiscal years to expand the scholarship program to four-year campuses at Manoa, Hilo and West Oahu.

Honolulu Community College students are among those eligible for the Hawaii Promise program. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The scholarships would have gone to students who had exhausted other forms of financial aid to cover basic education costs like tuition, books and transportation. At the community college level, the program has helped more than 1,500 students since it was implemented in 2017.

The funds provided in SB 316 should sustain the program at the community colleges for at least the next two years, said UH spokesman Dan Meisenzhal.

UH will come back to the Legislature next year with another request to expand the program to the four-year campuses, Meisenzhal said.

Hawaii Promise was one of the big-ticket items that wasn’t included in the state’s base operating budget that the Legislature passed in March. Others included money for homeless initiatives and pre-kindergarten school programs.

Prospects for expanding the UH tuition program were shaky from the start.

Sens. Donna Mercado Kim and Donovan Dela Cruz indicated in December that UH’s budget request might not pass in full. Kim later told Civil Beat that the Senate would not expand the program.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke told reporters in March that Hawaii Promise was low on the list of outstanding budget requests compared to items like Big Island disaster relief.

But Hawaii Promise was the top priority for UH.

UH administrators wanted to expand the program to its four-year campuses to allow community college students already receiving the scholarships to continue getting them if they transferred.

Several bills would have paid for that, but none made it through.

UH administrators hoped the expanded program would mean more students could avoid taking out loans. At UH Manoa, the average undergraduate leaves school with about $24,000 in student debt, according to the Institute for College Access And Success.

Evaluating The Program

SB 641 would also require UH to collect data on Hawaii Promise’s effectiveness helping students graduate.

The bill tasks UH with tracking how many community college recipients aren’t able to complete their degrees, how likely students are to complete their degrees if they receive the scholarships and how many recipients would have enrolled at UH regardless.

UH said in written testimony that it has already begun tracking program data.

Honolulu Community College in 2014. Lawmakers want UH to collect data on who receives Hawaii Promise scholarship money and how effective it is at helping students graduate. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The House version of the bill also requires the UH to study how effective the program is for helping students graduate.

Dela Cruz included those amendments after Jim Shon, former director of the UH Education Policy Center, raised concerns about the effectiveness of the program.

He worried that some scholarship recipients would have gone to college anyway and didn’t need the assistance.

“Basically what we could have done is shift money from upper middle-class families and have taxpayers subsidize that,” Shon. “You want it as much as possible for it to be money for the kids that would not have gone.”

The program requires that recipients fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, be enrolled in classes offering at least six credits and have a 2.0 or higher grade point average.

Shon suggested that UH leave scholarship requirements up to individual campuses.

The bill would require UH to submit a report to the Legislature before its 2021 session. That’s also when the state will be considering its next biennium budget, and likely the next time UH could make a real run at expanding the program.

When the lawmakers first introduced bills to create the scholarship program in 2017, some measures would have appropriated money for all UH campuses, but none of them received hearings.

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