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Financing Higher Education Needs Courage and Accountability

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

     The University’s Board of Regents bowed to the protests of faculty and students over a proposal to raise tuition rates for the coming year.

One protestor argued that how dare the Regents suggest raising the cost of education to levels that are charged at other schools in the West when the quality of education was no where near that offered at those institutions. That statement represents the very heart of the dilemma facing higher education in Hawaii.

For years, the taxpayers of the state subsidized a large portion of the cost of a higher education in Hawaii and as a result students attending the University of Hawaii enjoyed very low tuition rates. In many cases the tuition for a year of education at the University was only a fraction of the cost of tuition at a private secondary school in Hawaii. And in many cases, a year at the University still costs the student a fraction of a private high school tuition bill.

As long as the legislature and therefore taxpayers provided the bulk of the funding for the University, no one complained about the quality of education. The University became an attractive green pasture for political patronage jobs because of the generous pay scale it offered as an academic institution no subject to comparisons of compensation with other state positions. As a result, the politics of the institution overtook the academic vision for the University.

With the need to play the game of politics to secure the continued funding of the legislature, the academic side also lost out to the political whims of elected officials down at the legislature. And when the money started to run out at the legislature, the state decided to give the University “autonomy” and spun the University off on its financial independence, allowing it to keep the revenues from tuition payments along with baseline funding from the state.

While students may not like the idea of increasing tuition rates or while they may not see an equitable return in the value of the education they receive, perhaps the old saying of “you pay for what you get” is more than appropriate. If the University cannot offer competitive compensation for instructors, professors, and researchers, then the education that will be available is going to be less than what can be expected at a top-notch private or public university on the mainland. Believe it or not, universities regularly “steal” from each other, offering all kinds of incentives, compensation supplements, housing, research facilities, and the like to attract top educators and researchers to their communities.

Those schools also rely on a number of funding sources including but not limited to tuition. Sources such as research grants, endowments, and corporate partnerships infuse millions of dollars into the academic communities around the country.

And while many of those top notch universities charge tuition ranging into the thousands of dollars, one can find students from some of the country’s poorest communities amongst the student population. For example, one small exclusive private university has boasted about the fact that more than 10% of their students have come from the inner cities of the nation for the past 35 years. Thanks to generous scholarship and loan programs, kids from some of the poorest families in the nation have had an opportunity to attend many of these fine schools.

On the other hand, for those students whose families can afford to pay the tuition, they are asked to do so. What that requirement does for those students is to place a value on the education that they expect to receive. If the student or the parents do not see an equal value of education recieved for the money they pay for that education, the school officials hear about it. Students boycott professors who gain a reputation for not teaching or the school garners a poor reputation and this is reflected in the applications to that school.

Declining applications and therefore declining enrollment send up red flags to school administrators because if they can’t attract enough customers, in this case students, who will pay the tuition or bring in revenues through scholarships? The financial bottom line is jeopardized which in turn will erode the ability of the school to attract quality teachers.

So as much as students may resent tuition increases, how much is paid for that education will increase the awareness of the quality of education received. This is called accountability. Too bad the Board of Regents did not have the courage to restore accountability to the University of Hawaii.

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