Catherine Toth Fox: Enrollment Is Down At Hawaii Community Colleges. That's A Pity - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

I’m a big fan of community colleges — and the ones in Hawaii, at least in my experience, provide supportive, nurturing learning environments with smaller classes and dedicated instructors at an affordable cost. Plus, many of them offer more than college credits.

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Some operate theaters, host community events like farmers markets and craft fairs, offer trade certifications and professional development, and run restaurants and child care centers. You can even get a passport at Kapiolani Community College.

As a friend of mine — a proud alum of KCC — told me yesterday, “Community colleges are the backbone of our community.”

I couldn’t agree more. Which is why the recent decline in enrollment at nearly all seven of the state’s community colleges is particularly distressing.

In the fall, enrollment dropped 4.2% compared to a year ago at all seven community colleges, part of the University of Hawaii’s 10-campus system.

The flagship Manoa campus only saw a 0.1% decline — just 24 fewer students — and welcomed its largest-ever freshman class of 3,106 students. Enrollment at UH Hilo and West Oahu are also down, by 8.2% and 3.2%, respectively.

I taught journalism at KCC for more than a decade, as both a lecturer and full-time faculty member. I loved everything about the school, particularly its commitment to providing open access to high education opportunities. (I also loved the cafeteria.)

I believe everyone, period, should have access to education, and community colleges play a critical role in that. Not only do they provide important workforce development and vocational training, but these schools can empower communities and provide solutions to disparities in income and wealth and political polarization.

Yes, community colleges can do this. Because education can do this.

I started a full-time gig at KCC in the middle of the Great Recession in 2008. As is common during economic downturns, enrollment spiked. I remember faculty meetings where we discussed what we would need to do if enrollment hit 10,000 students.

The 44-acre Diamond Head campus wasn’t big enough to accommodate that many students, and we needed to think creatively about how we could best serve them. We offered more online courses and taught in-person classes wherever we could find space. In 2011, a record 9,023 students were enrolled at KCC. Lecturers were hired, online offerings expanded. My classes were maxed out every semester.

Windward Community College Administration Building.
Windward Community College bucked the national trend of declining enrollment this year. This fall, it welcomed one of its largest entering classes in years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

This year enrollment at KCC is 5,828. Over the past decade, the college lost more than 3,000 students. The coronavirus pandemic also had a huge impact on its international students, which typically made up between 10% to 12% of its total population. The college now employs fewer lecturers and full-time faculty. And it can’t offer as many sections of courses.

It just doesn’t have enough students.

Louise Pagotto, KCC chancellor who has been with the college since 1989, says the pandemic didn’t behave like recessions do, where students return to classrooms.

“For students in Hawaii, the recent pandemic may have given them an opportunity to rethink their plans,” she says. “The UH community colleges have been seeing less steep enrollment drops than community colleges on the mainland, but the downward trend is very worrisome.”

Before Covid, 27% of classes at KCC were offered online; at the height of the pandemic, it was the opposite, with 25% of classes held in-person. Now, students still want online options — much how Americans prefer working remotely — and community colleges are working to meet that demand.

More colleges and universities across the U.S. are expanding their online offerings due to demand from students who would rather work on a college degree at home or at their own pace. Oregon State University, with its nationally ranked online Ecampus program, saw record enrollment this fall, with more than 35,239 students, an increase of 3.3% from last year.

The University of Florida has been offering online bachelor’s degree programs since 2001. And Georgetown University just announced it will be partnering with Coursera to offer a bachelor of arts degree in liberal studies, the first entirely online liberal arts degree on the online learning platform.

That’s great for students — more options! — but not so great for local community colleges.

Fall enrollment at community colleges across the country was down 14% in 2021, compared to 2019, according to research by the National Student Clearinghouse.

Pagotto says community colleges need to look at more diverse ways of offering instruction, from shortening programs to offering microcredentials.

Windward Community College, however, bucked the national trend, according to Charles Sasaki, vice chancellor for academic affairs. The Kaneohe-based college enrolled just two fewer students than it did a year ago. And this fall it welcomed one of the largest entering classes it’s had for years.

“We’re actually up 20% over last year, including big jumps in Native Hawaiian and male students,” Sasaki says. “So we’re feeling optimistic about the future.

WCC launched two new programs during the pandemic — a fully online degree in Hawaiian studies and a workforce certificate to train mental health technicians — which lured a diverse student body and helped to stabilize enrollment, Sasaki says.

“Community colleges are still a great deal, easy to access and a supportive place to start,” Sasaki says. “Our work in higher education is to improve lives, create opportunities and strengthen our communities and state. There’s no upside to less enrollment.”

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

After reading "The College Scam: How America's Universities Are Bankrupting and Brainwashing Away the Future of America's Youth" by Charlie kirk. I can understand why and why it makes no sense to get a college degree unless it for s specialty like Doctor or Lawyer etc. Mu suggestion to the young kids today. Join the military or go to some kind of trade school. They would be better off.

Stopthemadness · 10 months ago

As a High School dropout, I can tell you the benefits of higher education! Went to the military, didn't do too good but learned discipline and taking care of others! But, leaving, I had nothing! Then I found the way to get benefits from the military! I enrolled at UH Manoa and just rode the wave! I eventually got a B.S. in Education, didn't like teaching so used it to get a job I loved! Teachers are special! They are our best and most important for the growth of all! You dont like a teacher, try it for a year! Then Talk!

Richard · 10 months ago

Mahalo for educators such as Dr. Fox and Dr. Turner and their hard work and dedication. One note in that CC administration can and do ignore the UHPA contract regarding assignment of courses to senior lecturers. I know of one former STEP C (highest pay grade) lecturer who was regularly bypassed in favor of STEP A and STEP B (cheaper) lecturers for course at a local CC. UHPA was of no help as the administration had a "What are you going to do" attitude.

PuaLane · 10 months ago

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