Roughly 11,100 students will graduate this year from Hawaii’s public high schools, the first class to have spent the entirety of their final school year in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At first, it was hard to accept. Every senior wants a year that is extravagant and grand. Nevertheless, we took it in, and embraced it,” said Carlo Daquioag, a senior at Pahoa High on the Big Island.

Altered graduation ceremonies, nixed class assemblies and fewer in-person memories with friends, teachers and classmates weren’t the only drawbacks for the Class of 2021.

Waianae High School Sign reads ‘Wear your Mask’ during COVID-19 pandemic. October 30, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some seniors to rethink their college plans. Many students are worried about their economic future. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

They’ve also confronted an uncertain future amid the continued threat of the coronavirus despite an uptick in the number of people getting vaccinated, as well as eligibility expanded to those 12 and up. The pandemic forced lockdowns and restrictions that devastated the economy and left many families struggling. Campus life also has been transformed, with some colleges opting to continue virtual classes at least in some form in the fall.

“Especially for my seniors, I noticed they were very worried about their economic future. Some of them got jobs this year, to help families,” said Malama Ada, head of the counseling department at Pearl City High School.

Several of her students have decided to attend college closer to home, in part because they had seen friends who graduated last year enroll in a California-based college only to attend classes virtually from Hawaii.

“They didn’t feel comfortable making that (mainland) commitment without knowing what they were getting themselves into,” she said, adding this limbo had “started a lot of great conversations with students” about their long-term aspirations and goals.

But despite such challenges as a subdued final year, some seniors say they’ve managed to stay the course, like Hunter Harris, 18, the student representative on the Hawaii Board of Education who is graduating this year. He will study forensic science at Chaminade University of Honolulu this fall as part of the Kamehameha Scholars program for Native Hawaiian students.

“Since freshman year I’ve always been focused on going to Chaminade and my goals haven’t changed,” said the Kapolei High senior. “I was really set on where I wanted to be.”

“A lot of my friends really persevered through this, with COVID-19,” he added. “I feel a lot of people did a lot of soul searching, and found out what their likes and dislikes are.”

College Enrollment Rates

One typical rite of passage for many high school graduates also appears to be in flux — going to college.

The state historically has seen a 55% college enrollment rate. That dropped to 50% for the Class of 2020, according to data compiled by the Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education. While this year’s statewide college enrollment data won’t be available until later this year, some indicators point to a downward trend.

For instance, the completion rate for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, is down from last year.

As of May 7, 53% of graduating seniors had completed the form compared with 56% of seniors at the same time last year. In 2019, the statewide FAFSA completion rate was over 58%.

“Historically there has been a strong correlation between FAFSA completion and college enrollment,” said Stephen Schatz, executive director of Hawaii P-20. “We don’t know what the college-going rate will be (this year) but we’re a bit nervous.”

“This year’s graduating class has even more challenges than graduating seniors from 2020,” he said.

He added the loss of in-person FAFSA assistance sessions on school campuses this year was a big deterrent in getting seniors who are potentially interested in college to determine their eligibility for financial aid.

“For some students, they’re taking a wait and see approach (regarding college),” said Schatz. “But also some students who for 12 to 14 months have been at home, are finding a little bit of difficulty getting motivated for whatever their next step is.”

Schatz noted students have many options besides college but said advocates are worried about an uptick in kids who aren’t taking any steps to ensure their future.

“What we’re worried about are not the students who have a plan, if it involves an apprenticeship or joining the military,” he said. “We’re most worried about the students who are not sure what their next steps are going to be.”

Applications to University of Hawaii’s community colleges, moreover, have plunged from 3,899 at this time last year to 2,206 applications so far this year, according to P-20. However, UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said it was “premature” to assess community college counts now since students typically enroll closer to the start of the fall semester.

And while the number of undergraduate applications at UH Manoa actually has been going up since Fall 2019, applications to UH Hilo and UH West Oahu, the state’s two other 4-year institutions, may anticipate enrollment declines this year.

In Fall 2019, UH Manoa — the flagship campus — received 21,239 applications. In Fall 2020, it received 25,259 applications and for this coming fall, it has received 25,844 applications. Meisenzahl attributes the jump in interest to things like improved communication and outreach to prospective students and a more proactive communications strategy.

To draw more students, the Hilo campus has relaxed its minimum GPA criteria for the entering class in the fall — from 3.0 to 2.7 — and the UH colleges, in step with many other higher ed institutions around the country, stopped requiring standardized tests like the SAT or ACT due to the hardships of the pandemic.

“UH Manoa, like so many universities across the country, is taking a more holistic approach in application review,” Meisenzahl said. “That includes the applicant’s personal statement, courses, grades, list of accomplishments and letters of recommendation.”

Daquioag, the Pahoa High senior, will be heading to the University of California, Berkeley in the fall to study math.

The student body president and vice chairperson of the Hawaii State Student Council said he has devoted his high school career to preparing for the post-secondary transition, focusing his applications on his passion for student leadership and exercising student voice.

“Because I’ve been at it for all of high school, I’ve been setting up for college the whole time. I felt kind of prepared,” he said.

But for many of his peers, the pandemic kind of threw things into a tailspin.

“After a year of not knowing anything, it’s kind of hard to go into another year and choose a major or college – and making that their plan for the next four years,” he said.

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