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UH-Hilo, HCC See Record Graduation Rates Despite Pandemic

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Two years and counting after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, spring commencement ceremonies at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and Hawai‘i Community College are less than a month away.

Graduates line up during the fall 2021 commencement exercises at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. (Photo courtesy of UH-Hilo)

UH-Hilo’s spring commencement ceremony is scheduled for 9 a.m. May 14 at Edith Kanakaʻole Multi-Purpose Stadium in Hilo. There also will be an online component. Those who plan to attend in person are required to register and masks are encouraged.

Graduates and their invited guests can register to attend by clicking here.

HCC’s spring commencement will be at 6 p.m. May 13 at the multi-purpose stadium in Hilo. Graduates are asked to arrive no later than 4:30 p.m. and check in at Aunty Sally’s Lū‘au Hale Lanai. All graduates who plan to participate in person must register by 4:30 p.m. May 6.

Those who plan to attend in person can register by clicking here.

Spring commencement at HCC Pālamanui in Kailua-Kona will be a drive-through event and is scheduled for 10 a.m. May 14 at the Pālamanui campus. Drive-through times will be assigned and only graduates will be allowed to exit their vehicles. Everyone else must remain in their vehicles and wear a mask while on campus.

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The upcoming commencement exercises will be a kind of bookend to a period during which the institutions and their students faced unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic. However, UH-Hilo and HCC were able to adapt and change to not only ensure their students succeeded, but thrived.

And there is data to back that up.

Despite the curve balls thrown by the pandemic, UH-Hilo was able to achieved its second-highest six-year graduation rate of 42.7% for full-time first-time students during the 2020-21 academic year, according to information presented to the UH Board of Regents in February by UH President David Lassner. The Hilo campus also achieved a record three-year and four-year graduation rate, 47.5% and 58.1%, respectively, for for full-time transfer students and its highest ever four-year rate, 47.9%, for part-time transfers.

HCC also found success during the first full year of instruction amid the pandemic. The college achieved its highest three-year graduation rates for full-time and part-time first-time freshmen, at 36.3% and 10.4%, respectively, according to Lassner’s report to regents.

“We have not let COVID defeat us or our students, and we need to keep improving through and past COVID,” said Lassner in February, adding that setting these records shows UH is moving in the right direction on each of its campuses. “And we don’t get to where we want to be if we don’t continuously improve.”

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According to UH-Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin, the pandemic forced the institution to completely change the way it does things but did not change its commitment to its students’ well-being and success.

“The faculty and staff at UH-Hilo care deeply for our students and the community we serve, and we were determined to find a way to continue to uphold our mission and to uplift students and their families,” Irwin told Big Island Now in an email. “The pandemic has encouraged us to be more creative. We know that some students have lost jobs and that others have been directly impacted by the illness. We have approached the situation with empathy and support for one another and for our students.”

Irwin said the staff and faculty at UH-Hilo have worked continuously throughout the pandemic to improve their support for students in and out of the classroom.

The school was able to use federal relief funds to provide grants to students suffering negative impacts from COVID. UH-Hilo also has provided many student support services online, offering more convenience. With all of its curriculum being forced to move online in the spring of 2020, UH-Hilo and the UH system also provided the necessary training for faculty to make the successful transition from more traditional instruction settings.

“Everyone knew that the pandemic was going to be a real challenge to our ordinary way of doing business, and people stepped up in remarkable ways to support our students and to support one another,” Irwin said.

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The 2020-21 graduation numbers, she said, and the fact that UH-Hilo was able to improve shows Irwin that the school has met the challenges of the pandemic well.

“I am happy to see that the Hilo numbers came in strong this year, and hope to build them to even higher rates in the future,” she said, adding graduation rates are a sign of how well the university is doing. “If a student comes to us, they are putting their faith in us to support them throughout their educational journey, and graduation rates tell us how well we are doing that work.”

A total of 632 UH-Hilo students completed undergraduate degrees in the 2020-21 academic year and 143 finished graduate degrees.

“The pandemic has been really challenging for students and staff, as everyone has had to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances and find innovative ways to continue studying and teaching while protecting their health,” HCC spokesman Thatcher Moats told Big Island Now in an email.

Moats said HCC was able to achieve its 2020-21 graduation rates because of the hard work, tenacity and resilience of its students, faculty and the entire Big Island community.

In previous years, the three-year graduation rate for first-time full-time students ranged as low as 18% in 2005.

“Since then, through the focused efforts of our faculty, staff, students and administrators, the rate has steadily risen over the years to the point where we more than doubled it at 36.3% last year,” Moats said. “This higher success rate is important because it shows an increasing percentage of students have been continuing from semester to semester and graduating with the credentials that will help them build careers in their chosen field or transfer to a bachelor’s degree program.”

A Hawai‘i Community College graduate participates in a drive-through commencement ceremony in May 2021 at the Pālamanui campus in Kailua-Kona. (Photo courtesy of HCC)

The total number of students who graduated in the 2020-21 academic year at HCC, including at the Pālamanui campus in West Hawai‘i, was 536.

A total of 10,763 students received degrees or certificates throughout UH’s 10-campus system in the 2020-21 academic year. UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the challenges the UH system faced amid the pandemic were immense, but the students, faculty and staff have risen above.

“The transition to online instruction at the start of the pandemic and now transition back to in-person courses and supporting them through the process has kept our teams busy,” Meisenzahl told Big Island Now in an email. “The trauma the pandemic had and continues to have on many of our students and employees has required us to think differently and add additional supports where we had already begun to shore up such, as with mental health resources.”

He said UH leadership has again and again commended faculty, staff and students for their amazing resiliency during the pandemic.

“It takes an entire community, and our community has and continues to weather an unprecedented crisis without interruption,” Meisenzahl said. “Our faculty never stopped teaching, our students never stopped learning and graduating and our staff supported both along the way.”

Graduation rates are a key measurement for the university.

“UH’s mission is to provide access to quality, affordable higher education to people of Hawaiʻi, as there is no better way to lift oneself to a higher socioeconomic status than education,” Meisenzahl said. “Our job is to educate and graduate, as an education is the great equalizer in our country. Data show that people who earn a college degree or certificate earn more money over their lifetimes, are less likely to become unemployed in a recession, return to the workforce faster after a recession, live longer, live healthier, are less likely to become incarcerated, vote more, volunteer more and their children are more likely to also pursue a higher education and experience these same benefits.”

And there is always room to improve.

Moats said HCC will continue to ensure its programs are relevant and lead to rewarding career paths for students while offering the right support services to help students succeed, including tutoring, financial aid, advising and more.

Meisenzahl said UH can better graduation rates by continuing to identify and address unnecessary hurdles and choke points in the system that can delay timely graduation. He agreed with Moats that another key is support, adding the university system can improve by providing continuous support from the time a student commits to attend a UH campus until they graduate.

Irwin said UH-Hilo is working more and more with data so its decision-making is informed by that data and not by anecdote. The school also is disaggregating the data to see if any particular groups are being left behind, giving UH-Hilo information to design better interventions for particular groups of students.

“To help our students to be more successful, UH-Hilo is becoming more student ready instead of demanding that all students be ‘college ready,'” she said. “This is a team effort!”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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