Miki Cook never really saw college as a path for himself growing up in Hana. Neither of his parents had a college degree, and there wasn’t much of a cultural connection to higher education among his peers and mentors.

It wasn’t until he enrolled in a Hawaiian wood carving class at Windward Community College in his 30s, that Cook finally saw a place for himself in academia. Wood carving led to questions about the Hawaiian language. Then a Hawaiian language class. Then another. For the first time in his life, most of his teachers were Native Hawaiian men.

Today, Cook is pursuing a Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa, while also teaching high school students enrolled in Windward’s early college program, an effort that he hopes helps address a real challenge in Hawaii: The declining number of Native Hawaiian men enrolled in the state’s university system.

“I know that as a male teacher now I have a huge impact on my students,” Cook said.

Women make up more 60% of the student body in the University of Hawaii system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Overall college enrollment in the state shrank 20% over the last decade, but the drop was steeper for Native Hawaiian men, with 30% fewer male students enrolled last spring than there were a decade ago.

The biggest shift has been at the community college level. In the spring of 2012, there were 3,274 Native Hawaiian men enrolled at the state’s seven community colleges. Last spring there were 1,973 — a decrease of nearly 40%.

This is a challenge not only because of the missed economic benefits of obtaining a college degree, but because college can be a pivotal place for learning about Hawaiian language and culture, says Brian Keoki Faria, a Hawaiian language instructor at Windward Community College.

“If you want to get an education in Hawaiian history, language and culture, the best chance you have at achieving this is through attending college,” Faria said.

How will young Hawaiians get that education if they don’t go to college? “That’s a very scary thought,” he said. “It’s very unsettling.”

A National Shift

Universities across the country have been experiencing a demographic shift in recent decades, with women increasingly outnumbering men on campuses. But in Hawaii the gender gap is particularly stark when it comes to Native Hawaiian students outside of urban Honolulu.

Roughly 38% of students in the University of Hawaii system are men. For Native Hawaiians, that number is 33% — a number bolstered by strong enrollment at UH Manoa.

But only one in four Native Hawaiian students at UH West Oahu are men. The same is true at Leeward and Windward community colleges.

Most of the gains in terms of degree completion and enrollment increases for Native Hawaiians in recent decades have been because of the number of female students enrolling.

Although there are numerous initiatives aimed at bolstering the overall number of Native Hawaiian college students, there appear to be few efforts aimed specifically at addressing the needs of Native Hawaiian men in academia. 

UH West Oahu Campus Center Building.
Native Hawaiian women outnumber men three to one at UH West Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

There’s also limited research that’s available on the struggles Hawaiian males face in attending school. 

There are shared challenges that men of color across the country face when it comes to earning a college degree, said Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who studies how colleges can better support male students.

“Men of color are traditionally socialized to not ask for help. To be independent. It leads to them getting stuck,” Huerta said, and not getting the help they need in time to successfully navigate school.

Anecdotally, Native Hawaiian students and teachers say a dearth of male teachers for many public school students, a distrust of state institutions and mounting financial pressures to earn money right after graduating high school are all likely barriers to enrollment.

Economic challenges can also play a big role, as evidenced by changes in college enrollment during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nationwide, the number of men enrolled in two-year institutions dropped by almost 19% between 2019 and 2021, Huerta said. That’s particularly troubling because community colleges are the primary gateway now for men to go into higher education. 

“We’re talking about one in five men leaving community college,” Huerta said. “It’s disheartening, because that could have been the pivot point for a generational shift … We lost the chance to impact those one in five families and the ripple effect of having a college graduate in a family.”

More Role Models Needed

Loea Akiona first started noticing the lack of men on campus as a student worker at Leeward Community College. He channeled his concern about that into research for his doctoral dissertation at UH Manoa years later. 

Akiona, whose dissertation was titled, “Where Are the Brothers? Native Hawaiian Males and Higher Education,” said he focused not so much on why men aren’t attending college, but what the Native Hawaiian men on campus had in common. 

Akiona said one thing the college students he talked to had in common was a more holistic understanding of masculinity and a loving father who shared openly with them. 

Another takeaway, Akiona said, is about the need to have programs that are interesting and culturally relevant. And having role models on campus. 

“Having faculty and staff that look and talk and think like the people we grew up with,” Akiona said. 

Kaimana Cabebe, a Hana born-and-raised site coordinator for Hana’s Punana Leo preschool, greets students in the DOE Kaiapuni program at Hana Elementary. Having more male role models on campus could help have a ripple effect on college enrollment, some teachers says. April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2020

Having a Hawaiian studies professor who was a man made a significant impact on Akiona in his second semester of college. 

“He made it seem possible. He was faculty. He had a master’s degree, and he was kind of like any of my cousins,” Akiona said. “And so I could easily see myself doing something like that, at least being successful.”

Faria at Windward Community College said he wants to see more Native Hawaiians — men and women — getting a higher education. But his bigger concern is a shortage of male teachers in K-12 schools. 

Cook’s high school principal was Native Hawaiian, but he doesn’t remember having many Native Hawaiian teachers who were men. Mostly he remembers Native Hawaiian men on campus working as janitors or groundskeepers. 

“I had a lot of different mentors, people who could fish and hunt and were very smart individuals,” Cook said. “But they didn’t necessarily have a Ph.D. or a master’s or could tell me about academics.”

Having more male role models in earlier grades could make a significant difference in making the next generation of students feel connected to school, Faria said. 

“I think we missed the boat early on,” he said.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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