Thursday, February 28, 2013

Our College Experience in Hawaii – a parent's perspective


When we moved to Hilo, Hawaii in 2007 we rented a house near the University of Hawaii Hilo (UHH) campus so we would be within walking distance for our son to attend when he was ready.  

The University of Hawaii system has almost a complete monopoly on higher education in the state with 10 campuses on six islands including 3 universities, 7 junior colleges, and 9 education centers.  Although the tuition at UH has doubled since 2005, at $8,664 a year for residents, it is still relatively affordable compared to many universities on the mainland.  Nonresident tuition at UH is substantially more expensive at $24,912.  The tuition at UH campuses on Maui and the Big Island are lower, however all UH campuses have been scheduled for tuition increases each year until 2016.  Having so many locations around the state has increased the number of students in the UH system to over 60,000; 85% of them are Hawaii residents.

When our son returned from a high school exchange in Japan and was ready to enroll into Freshman classes, UH Hilo admissions told us that we would have to pay out of state tuition; they claimed our year of residency in Hawaii did not count since our son had been out of the country.  UHH was ranked poorly compared to other colleges in the US and their struggle to keep up with the flood of incoming students made us give up on fighting our residency case and on the UH system entirely.  We started looking at other options for college.

Many of the high school graduates in Hawaii go to universities on the mainland, because other than UH, the only other universities in the state are Hawaii Pacific University (HPU), Chaminade University of Honolulu (CUH),  and Brigham Young University Hawaii (BYUH).  HPU is a private university with approximately 7000 undergraduate and 1200 graduate students located in downtown Honolulu. Chaminade is a private Catholic university located near UH Manoa with less than 3000 students enrolled and only 1200 undergraduate students.  The BYU Hawaii campus is a Mormon university with 2500 students located in Laie, about 35 miles from Honolulu. 

We preferred a college as close as possible to us, but the private universities in Hawaii did not seem a good fit for our homeschooled son. We were looking for a college experience that would allow him to gradually settle into a formal school environment.  We even considered several colleges in Japan with international degrees.  During our search, we were very surprised to discover that the largest private university system in Japan, Tokai University Educational System, had a college in Honolulu near Waikiki. 

We went to Honolulu to tour the Hawaii Tokai campus which is contained in a single high-rise building that felt more like we were in central Tokyo than Hawaii.  Our son felt very comfortable with the students after having just spent a year in high school in Japan.  Tokai’s Hawaii campus offers an accredited AA degree in liberal arts.  American citizens are offered a tuition reduction to encourage their enrollment which made Tokai’s tuition less than UH’s tuition for Hawaii residents.  The English language courses and AA degree program at Hawaii Tokai are comprised of mostly Japanese students who live in dorm rooms above the classrooms in the high-rise building. The classes are small with 8 to 20 students and the professors are attentive to helping the students with their English skills to prepare them to transfer to an American university. Each term crams 16 weeks of a normal college semester into 10 weeks, so the college has 3 terms plus summer terms every year allowing two years of college to be squeezed into a year and a half.  Getting good grades gives parents even more of a reduction in tuition.  After a year and a half our son had accrued 50 credits and was ready to transfer to a university and take upper level courses.

One of the challenges of transferring between colleges is getting credit for classes already taken.  Most colleges have a method to determine in advance what credits will transfer.  If a lot of the credits taken do not transfer, it may take a lot more time and money to get a degree.  UH has a online tool that compares courses from most colleges in the US to their equivalent course at UH and tells you whether the credit counts toward a degree or not.  In some cases a class from a particular college will be eligible for credit one year and not another.  Other universities in Hawaii provide a free evaluation of a student’s college course work to let you know how many credits will transfer and what prerequisites for graduation they fulfill. 

When evaluating universities for our son to transfer to, our biggest concerns were tuition and living expenses.  We again considered universities in Japan including Tokai’s main campus near Tokyo and Temple in downtown Tokyo, but the earthquake and nuclear disaster in March 2011 made that option impossible.   We decided against UH after talking to students who were frustrated with class availability and having difficulty getting what they needed to graduate.  Our son visited the 3 private university campuses on Oahu and was most excited by the degree programs at Chaminade. Fortunately, almost all of the courses he took at Hawaii Tokai transferred to Chaminade and fulfilled many of the lower level prerequisite courses for a degree. 

The combination of federal loans, grants, and generous Chaminade scholarships has made tuition the past two years very affordable.  However, covering the cost of living expenses in Honolulu has been a challenge.  The cost of a dorm is about the same as the cost of a tiny apartment after factoring in the need to find another place to live when the dorms are closed and having to buy a meal plan.  Sharing a house or condo can create other problems if roommates are not compatible or able to pay their share.  The cost of living in Honolulu is much higher than our cost of living on the Big Island. A tiny studio apartment in Honolulu costs the same as a 3 bedroom 2 bath condo on the Big Island and our prices for fresh produce and meat on the Big Island are much lower than the prices for food in Honolulu grocery stores.   However, the benefit of having our son in the same time zone and only a short plane ride away has been worth the extra cost to us.

Our son has helped to offset his cost of living by working, but part time jobs in Honolulu pay low wages.  When adding the cost of clothing and transportation to a job and subtracting taxes, the amount of income does not cover the high cost of living.  Furthermore, there are risks of having a job in college if it jeopardizes scholarships by lowering a student’s grades or requires additional semesters in school when classes are dropped.  We have calculated that some scholarships are worth much more than the potential post-tax income from a part-time job in Honolulu. 

College today requires a substantially larger financial investment from parents to insure that their child’s degree does not come with crushing debt.  We think it is harder to get a degree now than it was when we attended over 30 years ago because so many more courses are required to graduate.  As home schooling parents we feel lucky to have found great college opportunities for our son in Hawaii.

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