Some graduate students at the University of Hawaii Manoa may be paying lower tuition by fall 2020.

UH administrators are  proposing a 2% tuition cut for state residents and a whopping 10% cut for some out-of-state graduate students at Manoa as part of a new tuition schedule. Those changes would also freeze rates across the board for all undergraduates systemwide until 2023 in an attempt to make UH more affordable.

The proposed schedule could mean a loss of about $3.2 million in revenue from graduate students at the Manoa campus. The UH system, which includes three four-year colleges and seven two-year schools, projects revenues of $342 million during the current fiscal year from tuition and fees in its billion-dollar operating budget.

Bachman Hall at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where some graduate students may see tuition cuts as early as 2020 if a proposal before the Board of Regents passes. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Members of the UH Board of Regents are expected to vote on the proposed tuition schedule Thursday during a meeting at Windward Community College.

UH administrators declined to comment on the schedule, with a university spokesman citing concerns they had about appearing to try to influence the board’s vote.

The tuition cuts for UH Manoa graduate students are intended to make the university more competitive and attractive, Donald Straney, vice president for academic planning and policy, wrote in a memo to the board.

The tuition cuts would save Hawaii residents about $300 a year and nonresidents about $3,700 a year. But not all grad students would get those cost breaks.

Some graduate programs at UH Manoa would not see any tuition cuts, including those in medicine, law, nursing, education and business. Those schools would maintain the same tuition levels they’ve have had since at least 2016.

Other nonprofessional graduate programs like the sciences and arts would get the cuts.

Tuition rate increases, particularly for graduate students, have made UH more expensive than some other colleges in the western U.S.

In a memo to the board, the administration links the decline in graduate student enrollment to past increases in tuition and fees. From fall 2013 to fall 2018, graduate enrollment at UH Manoa dropped 11% for residents and 19% for nonresidents.

Over the same period, resident graduate tuition has risen steadily from about $13,000 a year to about $16,000 going into this fall. For out-of-state students, those rates have gone up from about $30,000 a year to more than $37,000.

The median tuition for nonresident graduate students at public colleges in the West is about $12,000 less than their UH counterparts, according to a memo to the board.

UH Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney address DLNR board during meeting held at the Kalanimoku Building. 10 july 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
UH Vice President for Academic Planning and Policy Don Straney said proposed graduate student tuition cuts would make UH more competitive with schools on the mainland. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Fall enrollment numbers at UH have been on the decline since 2012. That’s part of a national trend of declining enrollment resulting from a post-recession economy.

The administration proposed a similar tuition schedule in January during the legislative session, but the board deferred action on it after raising concerns over economic uncertainties and the state of university facilities.

Jeff Portnoy had concerns that freezing tuition could have a negative impact on campus health services, according to minutes of a January board meeting.

Board Chair Lee Putnam said Tuesday that UH’s proposal to freeze tuition costs could be offset by a potential increase in enrollment.

“Even though the amounts we’re talking about aren’t large, they’re large enough for families who are struggling,” she said.

The January proposal would have rescinded 1% to 2% increases for undergraduates that are already scheduled to take effect this fall at the four-year campuses at Manoa, West Oahu and Hilo. Revenue from those planned increases are supposed to address some of UH’s deferred maintenance backlog, which now totals more than $848 million.

The rates would still increase this fall even if the new schedule is approved. For an undergraduate at UH Manoa, that means paying about $11,304 in tuition alone.

The tuition cuts for graduate students, and the resulting potential revenue loss, would come after the dust settles from what was a rough legislative session for UH officials.

UH officials were harangued over their budget requests and ended up losing out on one of their top priorities, a $19 million annual expansion for the Hawaii Promise Program. The scholarship program currently covers the unmet financial needs of students at two-year schools who have exhausted other financial aid by paying for costs such as tuition, fees and books.

UH leadership saw it as another way to increase college affordability for Hawaii residents.

Sen. Donna Kim, who earlier this year proposed sweeping budget cuts for the university, said she supports the proposed new tuition schedule since it could help reduce costs to students.

Kim said, however, that the university should find ways to reduce its overhead and other operating expenses.

“I’m certainly for reducing tuition, but we need to look at the broad picture of how they relate to one another,” Kim said.

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