Students tag a banner signifying their pledge to Agree to Degree at Hawaii Community College.
By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Second-year Hawaii Community College student Laz Sye, 24, has a family legacy to live up to.
Last year, his mother, sister and brother-in-law all graduated together from the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
“Right now, I’m playing catch-up,” he said. “I want to get up there and join them, to graduate.”
In addition to matching his family members’ achievements, he also wants to serve as a role model for his younger nephews.
“I want them to look at me and see that they can do it too. You know, it’s common knowledge that in the families with more generations that graduated from college, the younger generations are more likely to go on to college, too,” he said. “I’m not just doing this for myself.”
Sye says he wants to work his way from HCC to UHH to complete his bachelor’s degree, before possibly moving on to Boston University to pursue a master’s degree in political science and administration of justice.
“I want to work for the State Department some day,” he said.
While he is an especially motivated individual, Sye is not alone when it comes to students enrolling in community college with big plans. Unfortunately, says Hawaii Community College Chancellor Noreen Yamane, many of them get detoured somewhere along the way.
By last year, only 18 percent of the class that enrolled at the Hilo campus in 2009 had graduated, according to the UH Institutional Research and Analysis Office. And that’s the highest rate among the UH system’s community college campuses. The reason so few students graduate, Yamane said, is because contemporary students now face more challenges than ever before.
“They have a lot of responsibilities at home,” she said. “Sometimes, students are made to take care of not only their own children, but also a mother, a grandmother. This is very much an ohana community, and they become the caregiver. Those kinds of family obligations play a tremendous part in why they cannot continue on with us.”
Meanwhile, she said, financial resources may be on short supply, job hours may conflict with class times, and access to campus services may be limited due to the long distances students must travel on the island.
Then there’s a general lack of planning ahead, or making realistic expectations as they plot out their educational goals.
All these things combine to slow down or foil students’ plans to graduate, Yamane said, at a time when higher degrees make a huge difference in one’s earning potential. Hawaii Island residents with an associate degree earn on average $9,200 more per year over the course of a working liftime, compared to Hawaii Island residents with a high school diploma, according to a 2013 report by Economic Modeling Specialists International.
In an attempt to combat low graduation rates, the entire UH community college system has adopted a new program, Agree to Degree, which encourages students to sign a pledge in which they promise to pursue and achieve their degrees or certificates.
While the agreement isn’t binding, in that there are no obvious repercussions for those who may fail to uphold it, it provides a rallying point around which students can gather and provide support for each other, Yamane said.
“The idea is that it’s putting something down on paper. It’s a symbolic gesture, one that probably ends up saying a lot,” she said.
And the students aren’t the only ones participating, she added.
“It’s also a commitment from the faculty or staff, saying that they’re committed to supporting our students. Even people from the business office have been signing the pledge, saying they’re going to provide the best services they can.”
So far, about 120 faculty and staff members, and about 400 students, have signed the pledge at Hawii Community College, according to Thatcher Moats, external affairs coordinator at the school.
When students sign the pledge document, it comes with a card they can peel off and keep in their wallet that includes contact information for counseling, advising and support services, student health and wellness, financial aid, and admissions and records.
They also are provided various brochures and other informational material that is available to help them succeed.
Meanwhile, a number of efforts are focused on easing the transition into college life, which can ultimately affect retention.
This week was Welcome Week, which provides, among other offerings, a number of workshops that help teach students various computer programs they may need to know in order to further their education at the school. The college’s Passport Project gives the students passports which are stamped each time they attend an elective workshop, or meet with a counselor, attend an orientation, or sign the Agree to Degree pledge. Once they get enough stamps, they become eligible for prizes.
The college has also added a number of mandatory orientations to address retention.
“Through one of our grants, we were able to hire what we call a transcript evaluator. When we get transfer students, he evaluates their course work from the previous institution and makes a determination so they can begin planning their academic career with the college,” Yamane said. “This week, we’re trying to get those services up front.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune