It's back to school today for nearly 50,000 University of Hawaiʻi students across the state. Total enrollment has been declining over the last decade, and officials have been trying to reverse the trend. But preliminary numbers suggest they have their work cut out for them.
As of Friday, UH enrollment was close to matching last year’s numbers, but that can change over the next month as students register late or drop out. Still, fewer students are setting foot in UH classrooms today than nearly a decade ago.
The economy is a major factor in enrollment as students opt to enter the workforce and delay their education – either because a stable economy generates jobs or Hawaiʻi’s high cost of living drives the need to make money.
“So many of our families are just making ends meet, paycheck to paycheck,” says Judy Oliveira, vice chancellor of student affairs at UH West Oʻahu. “And that actually competes with them deciding, 'Am I going to go to work and pay my bills and put food on my table for my family or am I going to go to college?'”
Preliminary numbers from UH show a 3 percent decline in enrollment at the West Oʻahu campus. If that holds, it would be the first time the campus has seen a decline since it moved to Kapolei.
And fewer students would mean fewer dollars.
“You know, yes, drop in enrollment does hurt the campuses’ capacity to continue to grow and offer critical services to students,” says Oliveira.
Kapiʻolani Community College is facing a $2.1 million budget deficit tied to enrollment that will force the campus to cut classes and jobs. But not all campuses are seeing decreases.
At Windward Community College, initial numbers show enrollment is up about 6 percent.
“Rather than worrying about how the economy drives enrollment, we’ve really focused on what strengths we have to offer to grow us in the long run rather than have us be reactive to certain trends,” says Ardis Eschenberg, the college’s chancellor.
Eschenberg says the school increased its online course offerings this semester and invested in its Hawaiian Studies Program to cater to a large native Hawaiian population on the windward side.
UH is not alone in experiencing falling enrollment. Colleges and universities across the country are also seeing fewer students on their campuses. As a result, there’s been heavy recruitment of Hawaiʻi students by mainland institutions, creating competition for UH.
“The challenge is we have really good students here in Hawaiʻi and everyone knows that," said Ryan Yamaguchi, UH Mānoa associate director of admissions. "And to keep them here at the university – that is hard for us to do. We start out earlier, as early as sixth, seventh grade to come to our university.”
Several UH campuses have hired consultants and taken to social media as they try to rev up interest in university programs.
Final enrollment numbers are expected at the end of September, when officials will know whether their efforts to attract and retain students have paid off.