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More students flock to University of Hawaii-Manoa, bucking national decline in college enrollment

                                People walk the campus at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.


    People walk the campus at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

Enrollment at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and UH West Oahu rose by more than 3% this fall, bucking a national trend of declining college enrollment during the pandemic, data released today shows.

The strong showing compared to last year was propelled in part by more high school graduates opting to stay home along with more transfer students. The number of transfers to UH Manoa rose by 16.5% and to UH West Oahu by 18.6%, both from the mainland and locally.

Graduates of private high schools in Hawaii made a solid swing toward the University of Hawaii this fall, with a 20% increase in the proportion who chose a UH campus compared to the Class of 2019.

The flagship Manoa campus welcomed its largest first-time freshman class since 1981, with 2,184 students, as its overall enrollment rose 3.1% to 18,025 students.

“We have not had time to conduct extensive research, but we know anecdotally that many students and families decided that staying closer to home would be a wise choice in a time of global pandemic,” President David Lassner told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“UH adapted a number of our policies and deadlines to welcome those making late choices,” he said. “With just 40 known COVID-19 cases across 10 campuses since April, UH campuses have proven to be safe places. We believe more families have come to appreciate the wide range of superb and affordable options UH presents to Hawaii residents and others.”

Overall, the UH system showed stronger enrollment than the rest of the country. Across the 10 Hawaii campuses there was only a slight decrease of 0.8% in the total overall student count this fall. Nationally, postsecondary enrollment dropped 3% overall and by 1.4% for public four-year universities, according to figures posted today by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Board of Regents Chairman Benjamin Kudo highlighted the year-to-year enrollment rise of 3.1% at UH Manoa, 3.9% at UH West Oahu and 6.4% at Kauai Community College during today’s board’s meeting.

“Those are numbers we need to celebrate because those are very difficult to achieve,” Kudo said. “I want to thank our administration, faculty and other staff members for paying such great attention to keeping the enrollment numbers as good as they are.”

“We are on the precipice of a very challenging period of time to keep our enrollment numbers up,” he added.

Community college enrollment at UH dropped by 3.2% this fall over last year but that was much less than the 9.4% plunge for public two-year institutions nationwide that was reported by the Student Clearinghouse.

UH West Oahu’s population reached an all-time high of 3,168 students this fall, a 3.9% increase over last year. Sarah Lumauag, a Pearl City High School valedictorian in the Class of 2020, said the pandemic was one factor in her decision to attend.

“I chose UH West Oahu because it was financially realistic for my family and it is closer to home,” Lumauag, who is majoring in general business administration, told the Star-Advertiser. “I’m really enjoying the university and the environment that the staff and teachers are providing for us.”

Altogether, 28.5% of private school graduates in Hawaii enrolled at UH, a big jump over the 23.8% who did so among the Class of 2019. Public school graduates showed just a slight increase, with 32.8% opting for UH, compared to 32.3% last year.

Notable enrollment shifts on Neighbor Island campuses included a drop of 6.1% in the student census at UH Hilo and a rise of 6.4% at Kauai Community College.

In the past few years, the university system as a whole has seen dips in enrollment of 2.1% in 2019 and 1.2% in 2018 and 3.3% in 2017.

This year, Native Hawaiian enrollment in the UH system reached a record high since reporting started in 2005. Students of Hawaiian ancestry now make up 25.6% of total enrollment, which is higher than their 21.3% fraction of the state’s population.

The proportion of students who are the first in their families to attend college also rose this year to 22.3%, the highest figure since that information started being tracked in 2015.

“These enrollment numbers are welcome news,” Lassner said. “The University of Hawaii has a critical role to play in assisting Hawaii out of this crisis and helping navigate the way to a more sustainable future for our people and our islands. My congratulations and thanks to the many hardworking staff and leaders across the system who worked tirelessly under extraordinarily challenging conditions.”

The university is bracing for tougher times ahead, with a major budget shortfall and the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic still unfolding.

Kudo cited a national survey that showed the top reasons students are not returning to college are financial difficulty and the need to care for family members, including children. He called for efforts to address both issues, including expanding child care options.

University of Hawaii 2020 Enrollment

Campus/Number of students/Change from fall 2019

UH System: 49,594 students, -0.8%

UH universities (Manoa, Hilo & West Oahu): 24,358 students, +1.9%

UH Manoa: 18,025 students, +3.1%

UH Hilo: 3,165 students, -6.1%

UH West Oahu: 3,168 students, +3.9%

UH community colleges (all): 25,236 students, -3.2%

Hawaii Community College: 2,430 students, -7.1%

Honolulu Community College: 3,378 students, -3.8%

Kapiolani Community College: 6,369 students, -1.8%

Kauai Community College: 1,461 students, +6.4%

Leeward Community College: 6,363 students, -3.1%

UH Maui College: 2,936 students, -1.9%

Windward Community College: 2,299 students, -8.8%

Source: University of Hawaii

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