Lauren Souza, a student at Windward Community College, is a young mother of three children with another on the way.

Every weekday, the 25-year-old Kaneohe resident wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to take her 6-year-old twin sons to their respective schools. She makes the trek back to drop her 1-year-old son off at her mother-in-law’s house. Then she goes to her community college classes, finishing up in time to pick up the kids, make them dinner and tuck them in.

She spends the rest of her time doing her schoolwork and, with the help of her husband, taking care of housekeeping, running errands, paying the bills and preparing for her newest child.

And, until she recently learned that she was pregnant again, Souza was working part-time as a waitress on evening shifts at a country club. She quit after realizing it was too much stress during a pregnancy. But losing the income brought another sort of stress, making it even more challenging to cover the costs of community college.

Hawaii’s community college students lag far behind the national average when it comes to timely graduations. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that fewer than 13 percent of the students who enrolled in one of Hawaii’s community colleges in 2009 graduated from their programs within three years, the benchmark typically used by the federal government to describe “on-time” graduation.

The national graduation rate is 18 percent.

Use of the three-year metric has its critics, including Hawaii’s Community Colleges Vice President John Morton, who say it’s too restrictive and fails to account for the students who transfer on to four-year programs without completing their community college degrees. But it offers a way of gauging how Hawaii community college students stack up against their mainland peers. It also reveals how few students are on the fast track to getting their degrees.

It is also part of why just 42 percent of Hawaii’s adults hold a college degree.

A bachelor’s degree seems like something that might make Souza’s life a little easier. And Souza, who’s been in and out of college since graduating from high school seven years ago, doesn’t want to give up.

“Everyone’s struggling, and that’s the reason why we’re going to school: so we don’t have to struggle,” Souza said.

That is why, she adds, “I’m trying to tough it out.”

Souza’s story is, on many levels, common in Hawaii’s seven community colleges.

An array of current and former students — from a 21-year-old Chinese immigrant to a 31-year-old former security guard — explained in interviews with Civil Beat some of the ways that getting a community college degree is daunting.

While a degree may offer new opportunities, the route to graduation can bring additional burdens.

And for many students, toughing it out just isn’t an option.

Cheaper Alternative

Community colleges were created a century ago to make higher education more accessible to a wider range of students.

Hawaii’s community colleges serve nearly 33,000 students, which is about two-thirds of all undergraduates enrolled in the University of Hawaii, a statewide system encompassing 10 campuses.

Tuition for Hawaii’s community colleges is relatively inexpensive. This year’s tuition cost $2,544, or about $700 less than the national average.

Many students told Civil Beat they chose community college over a mainland university or UH Manoa, which costs nearly $10,000, simply because it’s cheaper. Most such students plan on transferring to a four-year campus after getting their associate’s degree — if they can find a way to handle the larger price tag.

But other expenses come into play, too. There are books and supplies — which typically cost about $1,000 per year — and extra student fees, including charges to support things like student activities and school publications. Top that off with the cost of transportation, food and rent, and the overall tab adds up.

The state says the cost of attending a local community college can reach nearly $18,000 a year for students who live on their own. Colleges across the country are now required to post their overall cost under new federal rules aimed at making higher education more affordable and transparent.

And although most students receive some sort of financial support — from federal grants to loans — that money only goes so far.

“It seems like there’s never enough to help you with school,” said Souza, who plans on transferring — while still pregnant — to UH Manoa in August to earn her degree. But she’s still waiting to find out whether she’ll get the federal financial aid she needs to help her pay for next semester’s $5,000 tuition.

The Trap

Though exact statistics from UH aren’t readily available, parents like Souza are common enough in Hawaii’s community college system that all but one of the campuses have childcare centers that give preference to students.

Managing their own children is just one of the challenges facing students.

Many of those 33,000 students struggle to make ends meet. Nearly half of them come from regions that don’t have many local opportunities for post-high school education — places such as Waianae and Kona.

More than one out of every four community college students is Native Hawaiian.

Three out of every five students rely on federal Pell Grants, financial aid that is earmarked for low-income students. And nearly 80 percent work while in school.

Such factors can drive completing college down — or off — the priority list.

Joey Lucero, for example, first enrolled in community college in 2000. It took him 13 years to get his associate degree in liberal arts.

The 31-year-old Maui native moved to Oahu several years ago because he couldn’t find work on his island where he also took courses. On Oahu, he enrolled at various campuses, but spent most of his time working the graveyard shift as a security guard in Waikiki to make ends meet.

Working such hours probably didn’t make his studies much easier, but he graduated from Leeward Community College with his degree last year. Lucero now works for a medical insurance company.

For the most part, he’s content. He’d like to pursue a four-year degree but isn’t convinced it’s worth it, especially when he hopes to scrape together enough money for a car.

“I’m really not interested in taking out loans for a career path that may not necessarily work out,” Lucero said. “I don’t want to commit financially.”

The Six-Year Plan?

An analysis of six-year completion rates reveals that a sizable percentage of students are at great risk of falling through the cracks. About a third of the students who enrolled in Hawaii’s community colleges in 2007 still hadn’t completed their degrees or transferred to four-year programs by 2013, UH data shows.

Those people could end up caught in the “Community-College Trap” that often ensnares the neediest students, leaving them forever short of graduation.

Experts say that someone who hasn’t gotten his or her post-secondary degree by 26 isn’t likely to ever get one.

Concerted efforts are underway across the state’s college campuses to help students escape the trap through programs such as “15 to Finish,” which offers students incentives and information to motivate them to take 15 credits per semester and graduate on time.

Much of the push is focused on the community colleges, with strategies that include increasing access to free tutoring and peer counseling and reducing students’ need for remedial courses.

The focus is also cultural; as part of a long-term initiative to boost Native Hawaiian enrollment, the university has set up tailored cultural learning centers at each campus that offer programs earmarked for students of Hawaiian ancestry, such as the federal Native Hawaiian Career and Technical Education Program. This past year, the community colleges enrolled 9,080 Native Hawaiian students, which is about double the number in 2006.

The community colleges are also replicating a successful model that’s being tested out in New York City known as ASAP, short for Accelerated Study in Associate Programs. The ASAP initiative’s ambitious goal is to get 50 percent of students to graduate with an associate’s degree within three years. Targeting urban, low-income students, ASAP aims to get them thinking about community college as a full-time commitment and provides them with rigorous one-on-one advice and financial incentives.

The idea is to convince at-risk students that, given the right supports, it’s possible for them to manage their outside obligations while simultaneously conquering their studies.

“All of those competing interests for time and money are real for everyone at the community colleges,” Morton said. “Every one of them can be overcome if the student has the right kind of support or the right kind of knowledge or the right kind of motivation to overcome it.”

Historically, community colleges were so low-priced and flexible that they made it easy for students to shrug off their education and prioritize other obligations, Morton said. Now, the university is trying to change that.

“The more barriers the better because we’ll teach you how to overcome those barriers,” Morton said, pointing to burdens ranging from housing to child care. “That’s not a traditional role that colleges play but if you’re going to want community colleges to succeed, that’s exactly the role you want them to play.”

Toughing It Out

Souza, who eventually wants to become a pediatrician, has come close to giving up.

“There have been times where I’ve been like, ‘God, I can’t do this,’” she said. “I’ve had moments where I feel like I’m neglecting my kids, like I’m doing something selfish for myself.”

“But I’m doing it for them.”

Numerous students told Civil Beat of times when they’ve neared a similar point, so overwhelmed that they verged on quitting school.

Raymart Cortez, 22, has to work two part-time jobs in order to cover his basic living expenses — things like his $750 monthly rent, food and his $150 semester bus pass — and the Kapiolani Community College tuition that isn’t covered by his federal financial aid.

Cortez, who’s the first one in his family to go to college, says he hardly has any time for himself. He finishes work at Jamba Juice at 10 p.m., after which he takes the bus back to his Kalihi apartment to study for a few hours. He typically gets three hours of sleep a night, waking up at 5 a.m. everyday to catch the bus to school. He says hasn’t seen his friends since January.

“There are times when I just want to quit everything,” said Cortez, who hopes to go into nursing and, eventually, business administration. “But I always think about how having a degree now is very valuable in the workforce.”

The same goes for Javelle Kaneakua, a 29-year-old single mother who has two jobs and is a semester away from getting her associate’s degree in early childhood education from Honolulu Community College.

Kaneakua didn’t enroll in college until a decade after graduating from high school, instead working in customer service to support her two sons. A few years ago, the Waimanalo resident decided to pursue her degree so she could give her children better opportunities.

“There are days where it’s just like, ‘Okay, I can’t do it today,’” she said. “But I have to be a stronger person for myself to make sure my kids can have a good life.”

Support

The drive and resilience that keeps these people in school are qualities that Morton wants to instill in all of the state’s community college students. And that often means increasing the expectations placed on students and making the college environment as supportive as possible.

A big focus in the state’s community colleges, according to Morton, is to shorten the amount of time students spend in remedial courses. About 55 percent of all incoming students require remedial English courses, and more than three-fourths of them require remedial math, he said. Administrators are also encouraging students to think about their four-year plans as soon as they enroll in community college.

A range of other initiatives target at-risk students, many of them tailored to specific campuses. The Waialeale Project, for example, targets high school kids on Kauai who wouldn’t typically consider higher education, giving them incentives to attend and successfully complete their first year at Kauai Community College. The Lunalilo Scholars program does something similar at Kapiolani Community College.

There’s also the TRIO program, a federally funded outreach initiative designed to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Services at Windward Community College’s TRIO center include tutoring, financial aid counseling and printing and copying, all of which are free. (Many students even get electronic books and then print them at the center.)

The center also serves free lunch every day.

“It removes the barriers that are hindering our students from being successful,” said Puu Zablan, who works as a peer tutor and academic skills coordinator at the center.

Zablan himself was once a student struggling to get by. After enrolling at Windward Community College a few years ago, he had to drop out in order to work and help his mom pay rent on their shared Waimanalo home.

He eventually returned to school — despite losing that place and having to move, with his mother, into his aunt’s home. Now, he’s finishing up his master’s degree in social work from UH Manoa, after which he wants to build a career serving the community and working with others.

As Souza might say, Zablan toughed it out.

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