The recession and a lousy job market continue to fuel enrollment at the University of Hawaii, which this week reported its highest-ever student count for a spring semester.
The university said it enrolled a total of 55,761 student at its 10 campuses statewide, a 9.4 percent increase from the 2009 spring semester. At the Manoa campus, spring enrollment stood at 19,286 students, up 2.8 percent.
UH recorded its highest enrollment ever in the fall 2009 semester, with 57,945 students.
Officials attribute the jump in enrollment largely to a sour economy and rising unemployment, which stood at 6.5 percent in December, nearly triple what is was five years ago.
"Often it's the case that enrollment increases when the economy is down and decreases when the economy is up," said Linda Johnsrud, UH vice president for academic planning and policy. "For many people, college is a good alternative to being unemployed or underemployed. It's an advantage to pursue training and education during those down periods."
That same sour economy is forcing UH to undertake program and wage cuts to help offset a budget deficit last reported at $76 million.
Johnsrud acknowledged the growth is coming at a time when UH is least able to handle it financially but said campuses are doing their best to accommodate students.
The newest students include a mix of recent high school graduates, workers trying to improve their career skills, people returning to college for graduate degrees and the unemployed hoping to improve their job prospects.
There is no clear picture of whether students are flocking to specific programs, she said.
"They tend to be all over the place. We have graduate students seeking their master's, students in areas where there's a shortage, such as teaching, nursing and social work, and business is popular, but so is psychology," Johnsrud said.
A six-year schedule of tuition increases that doubles the cost of attending UH doesn't seem to have discouraged enrollment. Johnsrud said that's probably because the university quadrupled financial aid to offset the incremental tuition hikes, which started in 2006.
Tuition and fees at Manoa this semester for a resident general undergraduate come to about $3,600 for 12 credit hours. Out-of-state tuition and fees for the same course are about $9,630.
The poor economy hasn't affected the percentage of nonresident students in the UH system, which has remained steady at about 30 percent, according to Johnsrud.
She said she had expected an increase in enrollment by California residents because state colleges there are turning away applicants and UH tuition remains a relative bargain.
UH-Hilo's spring enrollment is 3,864 students, a 5.1 percent gain over last spring, while at UH-West Oaahu, there are 1,278 students, an increase of 11.5 percent.
Enrollment at the system's seven community colleges rose to 31,333, an increase of 14.5 percent.
Windward Community College, with 2,305 students, saw the greatest percentage increase in spring enrollment - 24.3 percent. The campus, which opened in 1972, surpassed the 2,000-student mark for the first time last semester.
Windward Chancellor Doug Dykstra agrees that a weak job market is boosting enrollment, but also said the community college has been able to take advantage of a state program to open more entry-level classes.
A 2007 enrollment growth funding initiative defrays some of the costs of adding classes at UH community colleges.
"The enrollment growth funding enabled us to provide classes that students need at a time when they might otherwise be iced out of them," Dykstra said. "It's a case of 'if you offer it, they will come.' "
The chancellor said Windward Community College offered 22 percent more classes in the 2008-09 academic year than in the previous year, and another 22 percent more classes this year.
He said the enrollment drop from the fall to spring semesters historically has been between 5 and 12 percent, but Windward lost only 21 students between semesters this year.
"That's phenomenal. What that bespeaks is that there are an awful lot of retention students, as well as that word is going out quickly by the coconut wireless that we are offering the classes you need and you won't have the frustration of searching for empty seats," Dykstra said.
Windward Community College hopes to attract even more students by developing a full-blown night program that offers students a guaranteed three-year class schedule toward an associate degree, he said.
With a record 4,093 students, Maui Community College is the largest Neighbor Island educational institution.