At the end of every summer, friends and family gather at the state’s airports to wish a bittersweet farewell to the thousands of high school graduates set to leave Hawaii for college that fall.

However, this tradition of giving lei and exchanging hugs has steadily expanded over the past 10 years. U.S. Department of Education statistics show that an increasing number of first-time undergraduate Hawaii residents are choosing to attend colleges outside of the state.

This growth in the number of students leaving the state may stem from a wide variety of factors, which include aggressive recruitment by mainland institutions, a systemic cultural urge to experience life off island and a perceived lack of academic resources within the state.

This comes as recent U.S. census data highlighted Hawaii as one of only nine states to experience a decrease in population in 2018, causing some to worry that Hawaii is in the midst of a “brain drain”— when young, talented residents leave the state in search of greater opportunity and a lower cost of living elsewhere.

University of Hawaii at Manoa mall near UH art building1.
Students at the University of Hawaii Manoa walk to class. But more students are deciding to leave Hawaii for out-of-state colleges. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

From 2010 to 2016, the number of first time undergraduate students who chose to leave Hawaii for college has grown from nearly 3,400 students to almost 3,900 — an increase of nearly 500 students — according to data released every two years by the U.S. DOE’s National Center for Educational Statistics.

The federal agency only collects data from U.S. colleges, so this statistic does not include Hawaii students who chose a university outside the country.

But the increase in students leaving is not merely the result of efforts by Hawaii educators to boost the number of students that choose to pursue higher education. Instead, the data shows that the state has experienced a corresponding decrease in the number of students choosing to enroll in Hawaii institutions.

In 2010, almost 8,850 students, or 72% of all first time undergraduate Hawaii residents, chose to stay in-state for college.

By 2016, this number had decreased to just under 6,500 residents or merely 62% of new college students.

Colleges are only required to supply data on the state of origin of their undergraduate population every two years. The DOE has yet to release the results of 2018’s survey.

Roxie Shabazz, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management and director of admissions at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said she was not too concerned about this decrease in students staying in state as Hawaii’s largest institution has experienced strong enrollment numbers lately.

Shabazz also said that the federal data did not tell the full picture, as it did not take transfer students, graduate students or students who decided to go back to school into account.

Why Are Students Deciding To Leave?

Shabazz said she had two theories to explain why an increasing number of students are choosing mainland colleges over Hawaii institutions.

First, Mainland universities aggressively target Hawaii high school graduates because college-industry data available to admissions offices across the U.S. shows that Hawaii students are one of the most likely to leave the state for college, Shabazz said.

Specifically, Shabazz cited data released by the College Board, which administers various standardized tests, showing that just over 51% of Hawaii students who took one of their SAT, PSAT or Advanced Placement tests chose to attend an out-of-state institution.

This is significantly higher than the national average of around 22% of students choosing to leave the state.

Shabazz added that many admissions officers love to travel to Hawaii for recruitment visits because of the state’s attractive locale.

Shabazz also said one of the first things she noticed when she came to Hawaii five years ago was the “cultural phenomenon” where leaving the state for college was a “rite of passage” for many high school graduates and their families.

“I think it’s really fairly simple … families want their students to experience something outside of Hawaii, something different,” Shabazz said. “Often I hear parents say that they feel this may be the only opportunity for their child to go away and experience different things.”

As opposed to mainland states where residents can hop in a car and travel to different states on a whim, Shabazz said that Hawaii’s isolated island geography leaves many students wanting more than the state can offer.

“I think students can have a unique experience at Manoa, but I don’t think families have quite believed that yet, in terms of overcoming this cultural phenomenon,” Shabazz said.

“Because (Hawaii’s) such a small place, most likely everywhere you go, you’ll at least know someone or know someone who knows someone, and it’s very close.” — Yuuki Morishige, who’s bound for UCLA

Yuuki Morishige, who graduated this year from Kaiser High School as a valedictorian and will be attending the University of California Los Angeles this fall, said he chose not to attend UH for much the same reason.

Offered the UH Provost Achievement scholarship — which covers $10,000 dollars per year of the student’s in-state tuition and was formerly known as the chancellor’s scholarship — Morishige said he decided to decline the scholarship because he wanted the “refreshing” feeling of starting over, which would not be possible if he stayed in his hometown.

“Because (Hawaii’s) such a small place, most likely everywhere you go, you’ll at least know someone or know someone who knows someone, and it’s very close,” Morishige said.

“Sometimes, it’s suffocating.”

However, Morishige said that a large part of his decision centered around the many academic and medical research opportunities offered by UCLA, especially for students wanting to go into medicine like himself.

Morishige said that many of his peers chose their university because of the areas these institutions specialize in. He said that UH was not a particularly attractive choice for students not planning to major in one of UH’s specializations, such as marine biology.

Fighting The Trend

Shabazz said the UH Manoa admissions office was pursuing several strategies to convince more students to stay in Hawaii for college.

First, Shabazz said the university is trying to combat the assumption that students at UH would not be able to experience life outside Hawaii by expanding their study abroad programs, working on a program that would allow first-year undergraduate students to study in another country while staying as a UH Manoa student.

Additionally, Shabazz said that UH Manoa is seeking to bolster its reputation as a competitive choice for college by building relationships with students in middle school as high school students have already built up assumptions about UH as a school.

“You can’t start when they’re seniors, they already have their minds made up about Manoa,” Shabazz said. “Good or bad, they have their minds made up.”

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

About the Author

  • Joel Lau
    Joel Lau is a Civil Beat summer news intern. He grew up on Oahu and graduated from Hawaii Baptist Academy. He is a student at Boston University, majoring in journalism and political science, and plans to return there for his sophomore year in September. Follow him on Twitter @JoelLau808.