The 1980s: A College Experience

Lauren Arakaki
Student, Kapi’olani Community College
University of Hawai’i

We are often asked, “What are you planning to do after high school?” For many of us, the answer is usually “I plan to attend college.” My mom, Ardis, shares her story on how college was for her in the 1980s and early 1990s. College was quite different in the past, compared to college today. Some of these differences included price, enrollment numbers, and the number of years it took a student to graduate. Considering that I am attending college right now, what better way to show the evolution of college life than reflecting on her personal accounts and experiences when she was my age? Because of these differences, I am reflecting on my own experiences and how they are considerably different from my mom’s.

It was a Saturday afternoon. The sun was glistening through the white beams of our porch. My mom was going through her late aunty’s belongings, looking to see what should be kept and what should be donated. I came out and sat next to her when she found a black and white photograph of her aunty and father as young teenagers. My mom, five feet two inches tall with fair skin and long black hair, has always been someone I looked up to. Despite the fact that she was my mom, from the time I was old enough to understand the many hardships of life, I was quick to learn that she is one of the most independent and hard-working people I know.

I was excited to hear that she was willing to share her experiences in college, as she is typically a private person and doesn’t like to share much of her life with others. My mom was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is one of four children, having a younger half-brother, one younger sister, and one older brother. She was raised in a single-parent household, and as the second oldest of four, she was often a second mother to her younger siblings. As her circumstances were very different from mine, I was curious to learn more about her experiences in college, as she never really shared much of it with me unless I asked.

“Now that you’ve successfully sent both my brother and me to college, was college a lot different back then?” I asked.

Wide-eyed, she turned to me and said, “Well, it definitely was a lot cheaper back then. The difference between college today and when I was going to school in the ’80s and ’90s is the tuition increase. Because of how cheap it was, I took my education for granted.”

I then asked her what she meant when she said that she took her education for granted.

She sat there, staring doe-eyed at the large brown moving box in front of her, and replied, “Well, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t really focused since I was working at the same time.”

Being raised in a single-parent home forced her to grow up faster than she really wanted to. She explained to me, “My younger sister was three years younger than me, and my brother was 16 years younger, and because my mom was working, I had to watch them while she was at work.” When she finally graduated from high school, she knew that she wanted to continue her education. However, because her mom wasn’t able to help her with any college expenses, she decided to work while also going to school part-time.

The memories of my childhood immediately crossed my mind as she explained this to me. I was fortunate enough to travel to the mainland to get my undergraduate degree because she was willing to help with my college expenses. She explained that because her mom wasn’t able to help her, going away to college wasn’t really an option, though many of her friends were able to. She did point out, though, that back then, it felt like there was a lot less pressure on children to go to college. She said, “In my group of friends and with my family, no one really pushed me to continue to go to school. It was my own decision.”

I instantly felt anxiety rise through my body, recalling myself in high school trying to decide where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to do with my life.

It had taken her around six years to graduate from college. She explained, “I started by going to Kapiolani Community College in 1981. I then transferred to UH Manoa part-time, while also working to get myself through college, graduating in 1993.”

I already had an idea of how college was back then, but I was curious about her experiences, as they were significantly different from mine. One aspect of her experience that really differentiated her experience from mine was the fact that there was no internet. She said, “We didn’t have the Internet back then, so everything had to be turned in hard copy.”

As I sat there listening to how she did her assignments, I thought about how in today’s college classrooms, most, if not all, of my assignments are turned in electronically.

She also explained, “When I had to do research or write a paper, we didn’t have Google to look things up. We had to go to the library and comb through books to find the information that we needed.”

In 1990-91: “On the Manoa campus, a resident undergraduate will pay $54 per credit hour.”

Tuition was one aspect of college that has changed significantly over the past few decades. According to McGurran, “Between 1980 and 2020, the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board for an undergraduate degree increased 169%, according to a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.” All institution types have seen significant price increases, both public and private. Shapiro writes, “In 1980 tuition at Manoa cost $240.40 a semester. Today it costs $1,560 a semester.” Considering that this article was written in 2002, we’ve seen an even greater increase since then.

Hicks, in the 1990-91 Kapiolani Community College newspaper, Kapio, wrote, “On the Manoa campus, a resident undergraduate will pay $54 per credit hour … while non-resident students will pay $162.” In comparison, “Community college resident students will pay $10 more per semester. The fee for resident students will be $18 per credit hour in 1990-91 while non-resident students will pay $108.” 

McGurran points out some likely contributions to why costs have changed over time, including colleges providing more student support services, changes in state and local funding, and the overall cost increase of the service industry. McGurran points out, “Colleges are also likely to invest in the latest technology on campus, and in innovations in other areas that serve students, including career counseling, which raises costs.” As I’ve learned through the conversation I’ve had with my mom, though resources were available to her on campus, it was nowhere near the scope of what we see today. 

My mom also pointed out that another main difference is the change in the use of technology on college campuses. The Internet wasn’t invented until 1983, and Google until 1998 (McLean). As my mom previously stated, most of her assignments, papers, and research had to be done using hard-copy books, magazines, etc. I didn’t fully grasp the fact that technology has changed education in more ways than we know until discussing these differences with my mom. She explained that back then, she didn’t have Zoom or online classes, so access to education was much more restricted than it is today.

As a Purdue University article points out, “For one, technology has greatly expanded access to education” (“How Has Technology”). The article also states that, “Traditionally, classrooms have been relatively isolated, and collaboration has been limited to other students in the same classroom or building.” However, the vast number of apps available to us today has significantly expanded the scope of how collaborative work and how learning is conducted. As my mom explained, if she was sick or had an appointment, she had to call her professor and leave a voicemail or pass a note along to her friend so that they could notify the professor. Because of the fast-paced evolution of technology, we’ve seen greater opportunities for communication and collaboration that weren’t available to older generations.

Fortunately, my mom, Ardis, was willing to share her story on how college was for her in the 1980s and early 1990s. As explained above, it was very different from today. This has strongly impacted me, making me appreciate the fact that we now have so much more resources available to us that we should be taking advantage of. Not only was I able to hear her experiences, but I was also able to understand how privileged I am to continue my education. Throughout my years growing up and becoming an adult, she has also told me to be grateful, to take advantage of every experience, and to never stop learning. Because of this, I still look up to her and consider her to be one of the most hard-working and independent people I know.

Works Cited

Arakaki, Ardis. Personal interview. 17 Nov. 2022.

Hicks, Patsy K. Tuition Expected to Rise in 1990, 11 Oct. 1988,

“How Has Technology Changed Education?” Purdue University Online,

McGurran, Brianna. “College Tuition Inflation: Compare the Cost of College over Time.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 31 Aug. 2022,  

McLean, Caitlin. “When Was the Internet Invented? What to Know about the Creators of It and More.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 28 Aug. 2022,

Shapiro, Sheena. Dobelle Says Core UH Plans Survived Budget Cuts, 2 May 2002,

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