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Interim Chancellor’s Monthly Column, May 2019: Navigating change and complexity

Above, view of UH Hilo campus looking toward Student Services Building. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri.

Higher education throughout the country faces challenges that are systemic and the need for change is not just over the horizon but already here.

By Marcia Sakai.

Marcia Sakai
Marcia Sakai

The world in which we live is becoming increasingly complex and changing at an increasingly faster pace. This column takes a look at why the world of higher education is no different.

I have been fortunate during my career at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo to witness and participate in UH Hilo’s growth to become a full blown comprehensive university. With the support of the community, we now have an array of undergraduate majors in agriculture, the natural and health sciences, social science, culture and the arts, business, and pharmacy studies, and selected graduate programs in conservation biology and environmental science, nursing, Hawaiian language, teaching, and counseling.

Our campus facilities are well matched to this growth and include well maintained classroom and office buildings, student service and student life buildings, athletic facilities, residence halls, and instructional farm and aquaculture facilities.

But higher education throughout the country faces challenges that are systemic and the need for change is not just over the horizon but already here. Our approach to the changing environment of higher education is being shaped by several highly influential areas, and UH Hilo will need to position itself to meet these challenges.

Changing demographics

There are two clear demographic changes happening in higher education throughout the country that challenge the way higher education is currently modeled.

First, the number of high school graduates has stagnated across the nation, and even though projections currently show a slight growth in Hawai‘i, it’s believed the college-going population in the country will drop by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029. I believe that competition among institutions of higher education for this shrinking pool of traditional age college students will increase, and that we will see increased recruiting from out-of-state institutions for Hawai‘i high school seniors. This situation brings challenges to higher education in recruiting and in funding generated by tuition. But, UH Hilo brings value to the people it serves and will need to refine and better communicate this value.

Another change is that disruptive changes in industry will make career changes more frequent and more and more people will need to periodically update their education and knowledge. These are the non-traditional (25 years or older) students for whom evening classes and online courses are more attractive. UH Hilo’s development of online learning will need to address this group. Our master of arts in teaching currently serves working teachers who want to build stronger curriculum and pedagogy to improve our local schools and positively impact their students. We also are answering this challenge with new degree and certificate programs for future jobs such as in data science and aeronautical science.

The importance of liberal arts

UH Hilo is already helping to answer workforce needs for more scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians—the STEM disciplines. These are the professionals who will see us through the greatest challenges of the times: climate change, environmental conservation, biomedical discovery, health care, sustainability issues, and more.

But equally important in building a modern and resilient workforce is for all students to develop their core liberal arts skills. These are the skills that will support their transition through multiple career changes.

UH Hilo is at its core a liberal arts institution with core liberal arts values and an array of programs across a broad range of career pathways. By the time our students graduate with advanced knowledge in their chosen major, they have also gained foundational skills in written communication, language, reasoning, and an appreciation for multiculturalism, humanities and the arts, and natural and social sciences. Our students complete an education that prepares them well to adapt throughout their careers as industries rapidly change.

The challenge of funding

I would be remiss to leave out funding in a column devoted to challenges. Hawai‘i continues to provide among the largest share of public support for higher education, but annual tuition charges have grown to make up the difference in the cost of providing services. This clearly creates a barrier to access for many students who are our kuleana to educate. While the growing reliance on tuition can be related to the increased earning power of the graduate, which is a private benefit, I believe that we as a society need to reverse the view of education as a pure private good. Education for one benefits our communities and society at large, and investing in higher education is an investment in the future of our island and state.

The great equalizer

Higher education is the great equalizer. It provides social mobility and is the key to a successful democracy. UH Hilo’s challenge is to find the very best ways to continue our mission of providing access to higher education for the people of Hawai‘i island and the state, in order to build resiliency in itself and in our students for us all to move successfully into the future.


Marcia Sakai

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