HILO, Hawaii Island – A recent visit to the University of Hawaii Hilo revealed an ever-expanding campus that’s almost unrecognizable from the one I attended.

Of course, my education occurred last century. Still, even less-wrinkled alumni would be hard pressed to overlook the numerous new buildings.

A $4 million campus store opened in 2012, followed a year later by a $28.4 million, 300-bed dormitory. The $21.3 million Hawaiian language building was finished in 2014. Construction work on a $19.8 million student services building wrapped up in June 2016. And then there’s the $31.4 million Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy Building slated for completion in the coming school year, according to the university.

But as fast as the new buildings have gone up, enrollment has gone down.

UH Hilo’s spruced-up cafeteria offers made-to-order meals but went largely unused during a recent lunchtime. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

A record 4,157 students attended UH Hilo in the fall of 2012, following eight straight years of growth. Enrollment has dropped every year since – five so far and counting – dipping to 3,539 students last fall despite more than $100 million in taxpayer-funded campus construction during the same period, according to the university.

It’s a case of build it and they won’t come.

“We bring in enough students. We just don’t keep them,” said Alton Okinaka, an associate professor of sociology who has been a UH Hilo faculty member since 1987.

Okinaka said a shortage of faculty members teaching required courses is one of the main factors causing students to leave.

Sociology professor Alton Okinaka, who started teaching at UH Hilo in 1987, lectures recently to a half-empty classroom. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

“Why should they stay if they don’t get the courses they want?” he said.

Also, not enough social activities are offered at the start of the school year to keep incoming students engaged, Okinaka said.

“Between the two of them, we’re hurting big time.”

That reasoning drew agreement from students who spoke to Civil Beat.

“I just registered this morning (April 12), and I couldn’t get one of the classes that I needed. It sucks,” said Terran Kaleiwahea Jr., a junior who said the desire to be close to home prompted his return to UH Hilo after a semester at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Kaleiwahea said he quickly noticed the new campus construction, but only recently learned the student population has been dropping for years.

“All this new stuff going up – I didn’t think they would do that knowing there’s a declining enrollment.” he said.

Micah Marshall enrolled at UH Hilo to be near his family, but now is considering transferring. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Freshman Micah Marshall, a Pahoa native, said the need to pursue varied classes is starting to outweigh his desire to remain near his family, which is why he enrolled in UH Hilo.

“I’m considering transferring to Manoa or another facility,” Marshall said.

Hilo native Nalani Kamehaiku, a sophomore, plans to continue at UH Hilo, provided she can get the courses needed for a psychology degree.

“They don’t even have a professor for some classes,” she said on the first day of fall 2018 registration. “So, I feel there’s not enough teachers, honestly.”

Jerry Chang, director of university relations for UH Hilo, said the Big Island’s strong economy is affecting how many students attend the university.

“When the economy is good, people tend to go to work,” Chang said.

Statewide unemployment hit a record low of 2.2 percent last October, according to the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Hawaii County’s February unemployment rate fell to 2.1 percent, down from 3.1 percent a year ago. Meanwhile, the nationwide unemployment rate was 4.1 percent.

Chang also attributed UH Hilo’s enrollment drop to fewer Big Island high school seniors and residents in the 18-24 age range, citing Hawaii Department of Education and U.S. Census data showing declines in those demographics during the past several years.

Jerry Chang, director of university relations for UH Hilo, said fewer Big Island high school seniors has led to a drop in university enrollment. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Overall the Big Island’s population ballooned to more 200,000 residents last year, but Chang said seniors age 65 and older have accounted for a significant part of that growth.

“This age group represents the smallest percentage of students on our campus,” he wrote in an email.

An enrollment-management plan listing what UH Hilo is doing to recruit and retain students is now being finalized and will be presented next month to the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Chang said.

In March 2017, UH Hilo gave the board an enrollment plan that set a target of 3,830 students for the 2020-21 school year. That goal, if achieved, would result in an 8.2 percent increase or 291 more students than were enrolled last fall.

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