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College enrollment still trails pre-pandemic levels

Last two graduating classes endured distance learning, other interruptions

There was a slight recovery in college-bound enrollment by Maui County’s 2021 graduating high school seniors compared to the previous graduating class, but efforts to continue higher education are still being hampered by the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

A mix of “alarming” but also some good news was revealed in data published last week in the College and Career Readiness Indicators Report by the Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education, which is a statewide partnership led by the Executive Office on Early Learning, the state Department of Education and the University of Hawaii system.

Following over a year of remote learning, online courses and other changes to the academic curriculum, 51 percent of Hawaii’s public school graduates from the class of 2021 went on to college in the first fall after graduation, data analyst Lloyd Grieger said during a webinar on Wednesday. This is a slight increase from the 50 percent enrollment rate seen from 2020, but is still down from the pre-pandemic rate of 55 percent, according to the report.

However, these numbers are offset by the continued decline in enrollment to two-year institutions, which fell to 17 percent for the DOE class of 2021.

There’s been a combined 5.1 percent decline nationwide in new freshmen enrollment. Broken down, public universities were hit the hardest with a 13.2 drop in new freshmen enrollment over the two-year pandemic period.

Grieger said the recent biggest impacts were “most severely felt” by private four-year institutions in fall 2021, which saw a 9.3 percent decline in new freshmen enrollment, but had previously experienced a 5.3 percent increase in 2020.

Public universities, both two- and four-year institutions, saw a 3 percent decline in fall 2021 compared to the 10 percent decline in 2020.

“The results are particularly alarming because they prompt fears of a lost generation of students who are missing out on important training opportunities that could promote personal independence as well as contribute to a strong economy for us all,” he said.

Enrollment by DOE graduates into the University of Hawaii system is seeing a similar trend. About 13 percent of 2021 graduates enrolled into a UH four-year program while 18 percent enrolled in a UH two-year program.

DOE schools, including charter schools, are following these national trends, but with a few “sunnier spots,” Grieger said.

According to the report, there were 11,333 grads from 63 high schools statewide, with 86 percent finishing on time and 32 percent leaving with honors. Among the graduates, the largest percentage of students were Filipino (27 percent), followed by Native Hawaiian (25 percent), Asian and white (17 percent each), Pacific Islander (7 percent) and other (7 percent).

“The pandemic made college enrollment decline for everyone, but, as we know, from studying college enrollment in the pandemic effects, it didn’t affect everybody evenly,” he said. “The declines were much sharper for folks who are economically disadvantaged.”

On-time graduation rates at Maui County high schools are nearing pre-pandemic levels at 82 percent; rates were 83 percent in 2019 and 84 percent in 2018.

Maui County graduates’ college enrollment in a two- or four-year institution was still down at 49 percent (2021) and 48 percent (2020), compared to 57 percent in 2019 before the pandemic. About 28 percent of those students in both classes enrolled in a UH institution.

Specifically, about 47 percent of Lahainaluna High School’s 2021 graduating class enrolled in fall college courses following graduation, which is lower than 2019 (54 percent), but still slightly higher than the classes of 2017 and 2018 (both at 44 percent).

Grieger credited the school during the presentation last week for increasing enrollment despite the pandemic.

The 2021 Baldwin graduates had a 47 percent college enrollment rate, an ongoing decline from 52 percent in 2020 and 58 percent in 2019; about 53 percent of King Kekaulike graduates enrolled in college, which is a jump up from the 43 percent reported in 2020; and 51 and 50 percent of Maui High graduates enrolled in college in 2021 and 2020, respectively.

Although Lanai High School continues to see a drop in their students’ first fall enrollment rate at 43 percent compared to 2020 (46 percent) and its peak in 2019 (60 percent), the ones who attended college were more likely to enroll in the second year.

About 51 percent of the 2021 graduating class from Molokai High School enrolled in college, compared to 55 percent in 2019.

Between 25 to 34 percent of the total 2021 DOE graduating students stayed in Hawaii and enrolled at a UH institution.

Kihei Charter’s college enrollment remained pretty stable throughout the pandemic, with about 55 percent for both the 2020 and 2021 graduating classes, according to the report. About 28 percent of students last year enrolled in a UH institution.

According to the reports, it appears that female high school graduates historically have a higher college enrollment rate than males.

However, in 2020, female and male students were impacted by the changes in the education system, such as distance learning, and saw a decline in college enrollment, with King Kekaulike female graduates experiencing the most dramatic drop from 74 percent in 2019 to 48 percent, though this improved to 61 percent in 2021.

Among the Baldwin-Maui-Kekaulike Complex students, male graduates from Baldwin have yet to show recovery; nationwide college enrollment has remained at 39 percent for the past two years, compared to 48 percent in 2019.

On the bright side, the classes of 2021 across Hawaii matched the all-time high on-time graduation rate of 86 percent statewide, with more students achieving honors in academic achievements, STEM, career and technical education, and in earning the Seal of Biliteracy.

Other data shows that DOE graduates entering UH in college-level English and mathematics, or having already earned these credits in high school, are on a slight incline.

However, the number of UH-bound students who are not enrolling in college-level math and English courses in their first semester is also on the incline, which could be a reflection of remote learning during the pandemic, more online courses or limited spaces in those classes, he said.

College persistence for Hawaii’s class of 2020, or students who persist into their second year of college, was about 75 percent; that rate holds true for the Baldwin-Maui-Kekaulike Complex as well.

Data is not yet available for the class of 2021, which is still in its first year of college.

“Students who start college immediately and without disruptions are more likely to remain in college and avoid stopping out, and this is even true for our pandemic cohort,” Grieger said.

This data will help schools and educators to “improve the education pipeline and hopefully increase college enrollment,” he said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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