In early 2020, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Hawaii Pacific University was at a crossroads.

Enrollment at Hawaii’s largest private university had plummeted more than 50% over the previous decade, and revenue had dropped steeply, leading to long-time salary freezes for faculty.

On top of that, HPU had made bold, risky moves, taking on a mountain of debt to lease and renovate the state-owned Aloha Tower Marketplace to build facilities for student housing, dining and activities, as well multipurpose rooms for classes and functions. It also moved many classrooms from downtown to Waterfront Plaza, a commercial center popularly called Restaurant Row.

Jennifer Walsh, Hawaii Pacific University
Jennifer Walsh, Hawaii Pacific University’s senior vice president and provost, said HPU is already seeing a sharp increase in enrollment, while a new doctor of physical therapy program will be “viable for many years to come.” Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat2022

By 2018, HPU’s operating expenses exceeded revenue by $10.9 million, according to a financial statement filed with its tax return.

The pandemic might have been another blow. Instead, HPU has accelerated a comeback that started tentatively in 2019. In the past two years, the university has significantly increased enrollment. It has new medical programs in the works. And now HPU is financially back in the black.

HPU even gave faculty cost of living raises and bonuses last year, said Jennifer Walsh, HPU’s senior vice president and provost. The university’s $139,000 in positive operating income for 2021 might be modest, but HPU’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, Dave Kostecki notes, “This marks the first time that we have achieved greater than break even in a number of years.”

It’s a positive turn for an institution that plays a key role training residents for jobs in areas like nursing, an occupation perennially in short supply.

“HPU has a great reputation for good, qualified graduates,” said Art Gladstone, chief strategy officer for Hawaii Pacific Health, Hawaii’s largest hospital operator, who also is a trustee for HPU. “They put out really good graduates.”

Hawaii Pacific University Students
Hawaii Pacific University nursing students Maila Matsui, left, James Mandel and Dain Shim are optimistic about their prospects after graduation from Hawaii Pacific University’s nursing program. Now the school has plans for even more programs. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

A big reason is a growing number of students. Between the fall of 2019 and fall 2021, total enrollment grew 12.6 %, to 3,575 full-time equivalent students in 2021 compared with 3,174 in 2019, Walsh said.

Perhaps more remarkable is the growing number of incoming freshmen: in the fall of 2021, the university increased freshmen enrollment 56%, to 790, following an increase to 550 from 520 the previous fall.

And HPU is taking steps to grow more. The university is putting together a master’s degree program for physician assistants and a doctoral program for occupation therapists projected to launch in 2024, Walsh said.

In the shorter term, starting in July, the first cohort of students will arrive in Hawaii to start a new doctoral program in physical therapy.

The 110 students will pay $107,000 in tuition over two years to earn a doctorate via what HPU calls an accelerated hybrid program in which students visit campus every eight weeks a year but do most of the work remotely. It’s hardly cheap to run: HPU is hiring 50 adjunct professors and 15 full-time faculty and staff, including accomplished physical therapists who, says Walsh, “could make a good salary remaining in private practice.”

But with 150 students paying six figures, the program will provide substantial revenue for HPU.

“The return on investment is still very strong for this program,” she said. “We expect this program to be viable for many years to come.”

During a tour in February 2020, John Gotanda, president of Hawaii Pacific University, showed off a simulated hospital room that is part of HPU’s new nursing school at Restaurant Row. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat /2020

All of this means HPU is hiring. The university now has 151 full-time faculty and another 137 part-time faculty, a full-time equivalent of 197. By the time all of the new programs are in place in 2024, Walsh said, there will be more than 240 full-time equivalent faculty.

Meanwhile, she said, the university lost few faculty during the pandemic, even though the university transitioned to in-person teaching.

“Being here in person during the delta and omicron surges: that was a big ask,” she said.

In return, HPU did something it hadn’t done in years and gave out $500 holiday bonuses.

In some ways HPU’s rebound couldn’t come at a better time for students and the local economy. The university’s new doctoral programs fill an important niche, offering training in technical, professional specialties that Hawaii doesn’t have, said Ray Vara, Hawaii Pacific Health’s chief executive.

And Hawaii’s need for nurses has only grown amid the pandemic. Many nurses who moved to Hawaii from elsewhere decided to go home, Hawaii Pacific Health’s Gladstone said. Others joined the ranks of travel nurses, who have been in high demand. Still others, he said, simply quit.

“I think what’s happened, to be honest is those nurses who were close to retirement have said, ‘I’m done,’ so that’s created some openings,” he said.

Gladstone stressed that recent graduates generally must go through additional training at the hospital company’s academies for new graduates, as well as specialty training. But he said the opportunities are there.

That’s good news for nursing students like James Mandel, Maila Matsui and Dain Shim, who were recently having lunch at one of Restaurant Row’s cafe tables, which are now increasingly occupied by students instead of lawyers and business people. Mandel plans to pursue a career as a nurse anesthetist, Matsui as a pediatric nurse and Shim as an emergency room nurse.

They all have prior work experience, Matsui as a home caregiver, Mandel and Shim in the Army. And while they know they still face more school and licensing requirements, they expressed optimism about their career prospects.

“I don’t think any of us will have issues getting a job,” Shim said.

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