About 11,100 students will graduate from public high schools in Hawaii this year, the first class to have spent their entire final year of school in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.
âAt first it was difficult to accept. Every senior wants an extravagant and awe-inspiring year. Nonetheless, we accepted and adopted it, âsaid Carlo Daquioag, a senior at Pahoa High on the Big Island.
Altered graduation ceremonies, nixed class assemblies, and less in-person keepsakes with friends, teachers, and classmates weren’t the only downsides to the Class of 2021.
They also faced an uncertain future amid the continued threat of the coronavirus despite an increase in the number of people getting vaccinated, as well as eligibility extended to those 12 and over. The pandemic has forced lockdowns and restrictions that have devastated the economy and left many families struggling. Campus life has also been transformed, with some colleges opting to pursue virtual classes at least in one form or another in the fall.
âEspecially for my elders, I noticed that they were very worried about their economic future. Some of them have found jobs this year to help families, âsaid Malama Ada, head of the counseling department at Pearl City High School.
Several of his students decided to go to college closer to home, in part because they had seen friends who graduated last year enroll in a California college for classes virtually from Hawaii.
âThey didn’t feel comfortable making this commitment (on the continent) without knowing what they were getting into,â she said, adding that this limbo had âstarted a lot of interesting conversations with the students. On their long-term aspirations and goals.
But despite challenges such as a moderate last year, some seniors say they’ve managed to stay the course, like the 18-year-old Hunter Harris, the student representative. on the Hawaii Board of Education who is graduating this year. He will be studying forensic pathology at Chaminade University in Honolulu this fall as part of the Kamehameha Scholars Program for Native Hawaiian Students.
âSince the first year I have always focused on going to Chaminade and my goals haven’t changed,â said the Kapolei High senior. “I was really determined to be where I wanted to be.”
âA lot of my friends have really persevered through this, with COVID-19,â he added. “I think a lot of people have done a lot of soul searching and found out what they like and what they don’t like.”
University enrollment rate
A typical rite of passage for many high school graduates also appears to be evolving: going to college.
The state has historically experienced a university enrollment rate of 55%. This dropped to 50% for the class of 2020, according to data compiled by the Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education. Although this year’s university enrollment data is not available until later this year, there are some indicators that point to a downward trend.
For example, the completion rate of the free application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, is down from last year.
As of May 7, 53% of senior graduates had completed the form, compared to 56% of seniors at the same time last year. In 2019, the statewide FAFSA completion rate was over 58%.
âHistorically, there has been a strong correlation between completing the FAFSA and enrolling in college,â said Stephen Schatz, executive director of Hawaii P-20. “We don’t know what the university enrollment rate will be (this year), but we’re a little nervous.”
âThis year’s class has even more challenges than seniors graduating from 2020,â he said.
He added that the loss of FAFSA in-person assistance sessions on school campuses this year was a big deterrent to getting seniors potentially interested in college to determine their eligibility for financial aid.
âFor some students, they’re taking a wait-and-see approach (regarding college),â Schatz said. “But also some students who have been home for 12 to 14 months have a bit of a hard time motivating themselves for the next step.”
Schatz noted that students had many options besides college, but said advocates worried about an increase in the number of children who do not take action to secure their future.
“What worries us is not the students who have a plan, whether it is an apprenticeship or joining the military,” he said. “We are more worried about students who are unsure of what their next steps will be.”
In addition, applications to community colleges at the University of Hawaii have fallen from 3,899 around the same time last year to 2,206 applications so far this year, according to P-20. However, UH spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl said it was “premature” to estimate the number of community colleges now, as students typically register closer to the start of the fall semester.
And while the number of undergraduate applications to UH Manoa has increased since fall 2019, applications to UH Hilo and UH West Oahu, the state’s other two 4-year institutions, could anticipate a drop in rates. registrations this year.
In fall 2019, UH Manoa – the flagship campus – received 21,239 applications. In the fall of 2020, it received 25,259 applications and for this fall, 25,844 applications were received. Meisenzahl credits the jump in interest to things like improved communication and awareness of potential students and a more proactive communication strategy.
To attract more students, the Hilo campus has relaxed its minimum GPA criteria for the fall entry class – from 3.0 to 2.7 – and UH colleges, in tune with many other higher education institutions across the country, have stopped requiring standardized tests like the SAT or ACT due to the difficulties of the pandemic.
âUH Manoa, like so many universities across the country, takes a more holistic approach to reviewing applications,â Meisenzahl said. “This includes the candidate’s personal statement, courses, grades, list of accomplishments, and letters of recommendation.”
Daquioag, the senior Pahoa High, will be heading to the University of California, Berkeley in the fall to study math.
The president of the student body and the vice-president of the Hawaii State Student Council said he dedicated his high school career to preparing for the post-secondary transition, focusing his applications on his passion for student leadership and exercising the student voice.
âBecause I was there all of high school, I settled in for college all the time. I felt pretty prepared, âhe said.
But for many of his peers, the pandemic has thrown things upside down.
âAfter a year of not knowing anything, it’s a little difficult to go into another year and choose a major or a university – and make that their plan for the next four years,â he said.