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Pandemic depresses college-going rates, especially for Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders

The class of 2020 at Hawaii’s public high schools managed to graduate at a record rate after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, but far fewer of those graduates enrolled in college, new data shows.

Just 50% of last year’s graduating class went straight to college, down from 55% the previous year. The drop was even more pronounced for students of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander ancestry.

The figures are contained in the College and Career Readiness Indicators Report published Tuesday by the Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education. The college-going rate had been relatively steady at about 55% for the past several years, and this was the steepest one-year dip ever recorded.

Only 35% of Native Hawaiians in the class of 2020 enrolled in college upon graduation, a plunge from 44% for the class of 2019. For Pacific Islanders the figures fell to 29% from 35% the previous year.

Among economically disadvantaged students, 38% went straight to college after graduating from high school in 2020, compared with 44% in 2019.

“The negative effects of the pandemic on educational progress in general are not equal across socioeconomic and demographic groups,” said Stephen Schatz, executive director of Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education. “In particular, economically disadvantaged, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders saw some pretty precipitous declines in the college-going rate for the class of 2020.”

And things may be even tougher for the class of 2021. While last year’s graduating class had just the fourth quarter of their senior year disrupted by the sudden switch to online schooling, this year’s graduating seniors have endured an even more scrambled academic year.

“We should assume that the pandemic had an affect on all of our kids’ academic progress and mental health — that should be a base-line assumption,” Schatz said. “This past year was not equivalent to a normal year of school. We as the education community need to take action based on that premise.”

The National Student Clearinghouse reported in December that preliminary data showed the college- going rate had dropped substantially across the country with the onset of the pandemic. The overall rate fell to 28% for the class of 2020 from 35% for the class of 2019.

“The pandemic impacted high school graduates in their immediate college enrollment, and those from high-poverty, low-income and urban high schools have been hit the hardest,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in announcing the data. “The enrollment gaps appear to be widening because of COVID-19.”

In Hawaii the public high school graduation rate has been climbing steadily, from 82% in 2015 to a record high of 86% in 2020. The rate measures the percentage of freshmen who graduate on time from the high school where they started.

The University of Hawaii proved a popular destination last year, holding its own as 32% of the class of 2020 chose to attend one of its 10 campuses, the same fraction as the previous year. UH, Hawaii P-20 and the Department of Education had quickly launched an initiative to help graduates transition to college despite the pandemic which was dubbed Next Steps to Your Future.

“We continuously work to smooth the pathways for Hawaii’s public school graduates to advance themselves by enrolling in a University of Hawaii campus,” UH President David Lassner said. “Next Steps to Your Future is an amazing program for the classes of 2021 and 2020 that provides free support, encouragement and a head-start on college to help our recent high school graduates continue on pathways that lead to better futures.”

The Next Steps program helped guide graduating seniors to post-secondary education and training, connecting them with a dedicated adviser and offering a chance to take free career exploration classes at UH community colleges in the summer.

Last year, 2,154 graduates received support services through the program, and they could take 120 different courses that carried college credits.

“That program showed some pretty good results,” Schatz said. “The data that we have showed that it worked.”

The Next Steps program aims to reach twice as many students this year. It is being funded by GEAR Up Hawaii, the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, the Stupski Foundation and federal coronavirus relief money.

“Vital work continues to advance our high school graduates toward achieving their college aspirations, despite the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic,” state schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a statement. “Collaborations with UH campuses and community partners have helped our college readiness programs to keep students motivated and focused on their higher education goals.”

In recent years local public school graduates have been better prepared for college. The fraction who enrolled in below college-level math at UH campuses has dropped to 13%, down from 22% in 2017. About 8% enrolled in below college-level English last year, down from 13% in 2017.

Find the College and Career Readiness Indicators Report online at hawaiidxp.org/research/ccri_reports.

To learn more about the Next Steps program, visit nextsteps.hawaii.edu.

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