About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at jokamura@civilbeat.org.

Ethnicity impacts whether students from different Indigenous and ethnic groups are admitted to the UH system, whether they graduate and their future employment.

The latest report from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization demonstrates the economic value of a UH undergraduate degree, including from the community colleges.

However, it does not discuss or analyze the considerable differences among ethnic and Indigenous groups in obtaining and benefiting from a UH degree. This significant deficiency precludes fully accepting the report’s conclusions, particularly those concerning socioeconomic mobility for degree recipients.

The major findings of the study include that “college degrees from the University of Hawai‘i system are well worth their investment for residents.”

Graduates are propelled ahead of their non-degree holding counterparts and enjoy a boost to economic mobility and human capital. They also end up earning more throughout their lifetime. 

Those with bachelor’s degrees can likely expect lifetime earnings of $2.8 million, 27% more than those who left UH without a degree. Associate of science degree holders are projected to earn $2.7 million, 22% higher than those who did not get the degree, according to the report.

The study found that most UH degree recipients, at 62%, obtained a bachelor’s degree, 29% an associate degree, and the remainder a certificate from a community college.

“Increasing the college readiness of Hawaii’s young adults and promoting college enrollment should be a top priority for the state’s policymakers,” the report said.

Both Gov. Josh Green and legislators need to advocate for and increase funding for the university because state appropriations have not recovered their pre-Covid pandemic levels. 

Before proceeding to my critique of the study, I’ll briefly mention its scope and research methodology. The data came from the Hawaii Data eXchange Partnership, a collaboration among five state agencies, including UH and the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. 

It included educational records for all degree-seeking students who exited the UH system between 2010 and 2017. Employment information was obtained for all UH students — including graduates and non-graduates — who worked in Hawaii after college and had their wages reported to the state unemployment insurance office by their employer. 

After the first year since leaving UH, wage data was recorded every two years up until nine years after departing, which provides longitudinal information on earnings. The study lacked earnings data on students who have worked only outside Hawaii, work for the U.S. government or are self-employed.

University of Hawaii at Manoa campus with a view of the entrance to Hawaii Hall.
The University of Hawaii has 10 campuses, including community colleges. The governor and the Legislature should provide more funding for the system because state appropriations have not recovered their pre-Covid pandemic levels. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

My primary problem with the report is that it ignores ethnicity as the dominant organizing principle of Hawaii society, especially in maintaining socioeconomic inequality. As such, ethnicity differentially impacts students from different Indigenous and ethnic groups in the UH system, including whether they are admitted, if they graduate, the degree they earn, the job they hold and the wages they receive.

A ‘Native Hawaiian Place Of Learning’?

Ethnicity is mentioned primarily in terms of the ethnic distribution of the students in the study, including degree recipients and nonrecipients, but the assertion that the sample “reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of Hawaii” is inaccurate. That is not the case because UH students do not reflect that diversity.

The report states that “roughly 10% of the sample is white,” while the 2020 U.S. census figure for “white alone” in Hawaii is double that percentage. Filipinos at 18% are also significantly underrepresented in the sample compared to their proportion of the state population, which is about one-fourth.

Furthermore, the study notes the ethnic makeup of degree and non-degree holders is “similar with the exception of Native Hawaiians,” who are 22% of degree holders but 38% of non-degree holders, the highest percentage by far of all the groups included in the research.

But the report didn’t elaborate on this critical finding that begs the question why such a high proportion of UH students who do not earn their degrees are Kanaka, especially at a university that represents itself as a “Native Hawaiian place of learning.” In marked contrast, Japanese (4%) and Chinese (2%) constitute much lower percentages of non-degree recipients, which demonstrates how ethnicity operates unequally in the UH system.

Projected Lifetime Earnings

Report co-author Rachel Inafuku, a UHERO research economist, said in an email that the question of how ethnicity ties into post-college outcomes is important.

“However, we wanted this initial report to focus on the overall effects of college at a broader level across all students,” she wrote. “Although we kept our first report broad, encompassing all students, we do plan on further dissecting the research in the future — looking at results by ethnicity, gender, and for Native Hawaiians in particular.

Given the report’s limitations, I assume that UH bachelor’s degree recipients from different ethnic groups differ in their projected lifetime earnings and that many of them will not earn the overall estimated $2.8 million.

Avoidance of considering ethnicity or race as an explanatory variable is evident in the report’s discussion of Pell Grants, which provide financial assistance to undergraduate students. The authors contend, and I agree, that being a Pell Grant recipient can be viewed as an indicator of low socioeconomic status. It also may be an index of Indigenous or ethnic minority status since most UH Pell Grant awardees are such.

Analyzing the significance of being a Pell Grant recipient, as are 47% of the degree holders, manifests the study’s focus on socioeconomic class rather than ethnicity. The authors found that nine years after graduation, having been a Pell Grant awardee no longer negatively affects earnings. That shows, they said, that obtaining a UH degree “mitigates the intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic status.”

This argument highlights the report’s emphasis on the economic value of earning a UH degree for individuals but not groups. Graduating with a degree can considerably impact the mobility of individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds but not necessarily the groups to which they belong, which is a much more significant concern from the perspective of societal inequality.

Students from the Hawai’inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge perform an oli at the Undergraduat Degree Ceremony held at Stand Sheriff Center. 16 may 2015.  photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
While it’s important to understand the economic implications of getting a degree from the University of Hawaii, the UHERO report doesn’t factor in ethnicity when projecting post-university outcomes. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

I have contended for some time now that individual socioeconomic mobility is very possible in Hawaii, including for Indigenous and ethnic minority UH students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. But collective mobility for Native Hawaiians and ethnic minority groups is much more difficult to attain because of systemic racism and our tourism-overdependent economy.

Socioeconomic Mobility

My criticisms aside, I highly recommend that state legislators read the UHERO report, which took me about an hour, or its much-shorter blog post. It will help them to understand and appreciate what the university is doing for the benefit of its students and to make informed decisions regarding its budget requests.

For the current legislative session, the university is seeking an additional $56.3 million in supplementary funds for the fiscal year beginning July 1. As a result of the pandemic, in 2021, UH general fund appropriations were slashed by 10%, or $47 million. The Green administration is requesting $21 million to restore the UH budget to its pre-pandemic level.

For the fourth consecutive year, the university asked the Legislature to extend the Hawaii Promise scholarship program — currently available only to community college students — to its four-year campuses at Manoa, Hilo and West Oahu. But the governor did not include the program’s expansion in his budget request to the Legislature. 

As made clearly evident in “Estimating the Returns to Higher Education Using Administrative Data: A Case Study of the University of Hawaii System,” being able to complete bachelor’s degrees will enormously enhance the long-term earnings of students and their life-long contributions as workers and taxpayers in Hawaii.

Read the report here:


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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at jokamura@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

I'd like to see a lifetime earnings comparison for grads vs skilled trades in Hawaii. It appears (example) plumbers make a lot more early in their careers than college grads. Factor in far less money and time spent on education and you have a winning combination.Anecdotally, plumbers put up with a lot less (ahem) fecal material over their careers than office workers.The British "finishing school" system of universities is fading. It's far cheaper to party and find mates without exorbitant tuition payments.There aren't many office jobs in Hawaii, any way.

E_lectric · 4 weeks ago

"I have contended for some time now that individual socioeconomic mobility is very possible in Hawaii, including for Indigenous and ethnic minority UH students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. But collective mobility for Native Hawaiians and ethnic minority groups is much more difficult to attain because of systemic racism and our tourism-overdependent economy."But don't groups gain upward mobility only through multiple acts of individual mobility? How would group mobility act?

Bothrops · 4 weeks ago

In my limited experience, watching my kids go through UH, there is a sense that the focus of a number of Hawaiian professors’ and some of the student’s are more on the wrongs committed against Hawaiians versus trying to get a degree that may offer a job working for the "colonizers" . Even my kid (Asian) had attended a (non Hawaiian Studies) class where a professor announced all non-Hawaiians are colonizers and that they (non-Hawaiians) don’t own this land. I can only imagine, what type of conflicts this creates for our young Hawaiian students. Do they continue and pursue the ways of their "colonizers" and obtain a "colonialist" degree?

Mnemosyne · 4 weeks ago

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