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University of Hawaii graduation rates rise even during coronavirus pandemic

                                McCarthy Mall at University of Hawaii Manoa.
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McCarthy Mall at University of Hawaii Manoa.

Graduation rates rose at most of the University of Hawaii’s 10 campuses this year, with UH-Manoa reaching a record high, despite the coronavirus pandemic and the sudden switch to online learning.

Meanwhile, even amid soaring unemployment and battered family finances, 80% of UH-Manoa students who started as freshmen in the fall of 2019 returned this year as sophomores. That’s close to the record 81.1% retention figure notched last year.

“The continuing improvement in UH graduation rates, even in the face of the COVID-19 disruptions in the last academic year, is a credit to the work of our dedicated faculty, staff and leaders,” UH President David Lassner said in a statement Friday. “More than a decade ago, administrators at the system and campus levels made this a priority and began to identify and remove barriers to timely graduation, and that work continues.”

UH-Manoa has improved its on-time graduation rate every year since 2006. For the class of 2020, the rate was 37.1%, up from 36.6% last year. Manoa’s six-year graduation rate, which is the federal benchmark, rose to 61.8%, up from 60.5% last year.

That aligns with the national average for public universities, which was 61% in 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The rate measures how many first-time, full-time freshmen graduate within six years at the institution where they started.

UH-West Oahu, which opened its Kapolei campus in 2012, notched a substantial increase in graduates this year. It is among the fastest-growing and most diverse universities in the country, drawing more than 70% of its students from Leeward Oahu.

“The last three years have been a real important growth time for us,” UH-West Oahu Chancellor Maenette Ah Nee-Benham said in an interview Friday. “Before COVID hit we were really on a roll with our programs, our tutoring, our mentoring, our wraparound student-centered kinds of activities.”

“So in March when we had to close down campus, our faculty as well as our student affairs specialists and staff were ready to put everything on the line, to just step up our personal touch with all of our students,” she said.

The school awarded a record 709 bachelor’s degrees in 2020, continuing its steep climb from 439 in 2015. Its six-year graduation rate was 38.7% this year, up from 27.6% last year, putting it in line with peer institutions of similar size and classification, according to administrators.

Enrollment this fall reached its highest yet at 3,168, a nearly 4% increase over last fall. Its staff had expected it might decline given the economic turmoil caused by coronavirus restrictions. The average age of students at UH-West Oahu is 26.

“We figured we would have a dip because of the demographics of our community,” Ah Nee-Benham said.

Its staff kept working closely with high schools in the Leeward District and stayed in close contact with current students to encourage them to continue their education.

The return rate, or retention rate, for freshmen who entered last fall was 74.5% this year, close to its all-time high of 76.4% last year. The university was able to offer need-based as well as merit-based scholarships.

Along with Manoa and West Oahu, five other campuses improved their on-time graduation rates: UH-Maui College and Hawaii, Honolulu, Kauai and Leeward community colleges.

“With our CARES funding, we’ve been able to support more of our counselors to help our students through these really hard times,” Ah Nee-Benham said. “I think sometimes schools forget that our adult students have adult responsibilities, and this time is not easy for them. A lot of them have children.”

Three UH campuses registered declines in their on-time graduation rates: UH-Hilo, Kapiolani and Windward community colleges.

The rate of first-time freshmen returning as sophomores rose at Honolulu, Leeward, Windward and Kauai community colleges, with Kauai registering a notable increase to 68.4% from 57.1%. It dipped at UH-Maui College, UH-Hilo and Hawaii Community College and held virtually steady at Kapiolani Community College.

To see full data on graduation and retention rates across the 10 campuses, visit the University of Hawaii online at hawaii.edu/news.

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