Message from Chancellor Straney: Everyone has a role in growing enrollment at UH Hilo

We know that students are more likely to come to UH Hilo, persist in their studies, and then graduate if they make strong connections to people on campus.

By Chancellor Don Straney

Don Straney
Don Straney

You probably saw on the news that University of Hawai‘i at Hilo missed the target for enrollment for the second year in a row. We’re not alone. This is a problem that has hit many small campuses across the country. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education cites a new survey of 368 small private colleges and midsize state institutions that shows 38 percent met neither their goals for freshman enrollment nor their goals for net tuition revenue this fall.

There are two ways we can address our enrollment challenge. One, recruit more students to come here, and two, retain students who are already attending UH Hilo. To do both, we must strengthen our connections with students, whether prospective or already attending our university.

Recruit more students to come here

As a publicly controlled regional university, our primary aim is to commit the majority of our recruitment efforts on Native Hawaiians and the diverse residents of Hawai’i, with a focus on prospective high school graduates.

For the first time in five years, we’ve connected with high school counselors. This fall, we hosted 44 high school counselors from around the state (17 from Hawai‘i Island, two from Maui, and 25 from O‘ahu) for a visit to our campus. We’re working with the counselors to set up meetings for students at the high schools with a UH Hilo admissions counselor and members of our faculty and student body. Our counselors help students understand the steps they need to take as they complete high school and prepare to enter college. UH Hilo departments will follow up, calling students to help them with their decision.

UH President David Lassner has challenged us with a goal to have every high school student graduate with a diploma and some UH credit in hand. The work our North Hawai‘i Education and Research Center is doing with Honoka‘a High School is a model for what UH Hilo can do for Hawai‘i Island.

We are reaching out near and far. We are connecting with students who graduate from Hawaiian immersion schools, hoping they see UH Hilo as a natural place to go for college. Further away, we are identifying international locations where we can recruit students who can take advantage of what UH Hilo has to offer.

Our Financial Aid Office reaches out to students and their families around the island to explain the financial aid and scholarship process. This is a key component in the college admissions process as most families make their college decision based on the financial aid package.

We’re increasing our connections with community college students who want to transfer to a four-year university. We have a successful program in place with Hawai‘i CC to help students plan ahead with their course load and then seamlessly transfer into selected majors at UH Hilo. This long-range planning also strengthens retention among transfers. We’re also participating in a STEM expo at Kapi‘olani CC in November for the very first time. UH Hilo professors from marine science, astronomy and physics, and computer science will be there with our vice chancellor for student affairs. A counselor from our Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center is doing more outreach to students at UH West Hawai‘i and Hawai‘i CC.

How can we give prospective students a feel for what it’s like to be at UH Hilo? Expanding our online presence, the Admissions Office has fully embraced social media, with a daily active and fun presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It gives prospective students an immediate connection to our current students at work, study, and play. See for yourself!

Retain students who are already attending UH Hilo

The second part of the enrollment challenge is to retain students who are here. We know that students are more likely to persist in their studies and graduate if they make strong connections to people on campus. We’ve created support programs to help students connect to faculty, staff and to each other and thrive in their programs. Some examples are:

  • A pilot “summer bridge” program for college-bound graduates from Kea‘au High School who lived for six weeks on the UH Hilo campus, preparing for their years with us or Hawai‘i Community College. The program is designed to prepare local students for studies and careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and natural resources fields.
  • A pilot “Living-Learning Community” this fall, where students studying a particular field are housed together to create cohorts of academic support and friendship. Studies show students who learn within a community of peers are more likely to stay in college and earn a higher GPA. With UH Hilo’s living-learning communities, students find the perfect place to live and find the support they need while pursuing their studies. (This is also the kind of learning environment prospective students look to find.)
  • Intensifying advising, with advising staff and faculty reaching out to students throughout the semester. These are personal one-on-one connections with a caring person making the effort to connect with the student.
  • The creation of four-year academic “maps,” available online, guiding students to graduate in four years. This is part of the UH System “15 to Finish” campaign, based on research that shows students who take at least 15 credits a semester are more likely to do better and graduate on time. Advisors encourage students to make a plan and then stick to it.
  • Intensifying applied learning programs, giving students the experience to connect with a mentor and work in their field, making them more likely to stay and graduate. When they do graduate, they have a diploma and a résumé in hand, ready for work or graduate school.

There is a role for everyone to play in growing our enrollment. We appreciate the assistance of faculty and staff in helping our students succeed, and the local community for spreading the word about the value of a UH Hilo education. By working together, we can grow our university and help our island and state move forward into the future.


Don Straney