Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders struggle with low college participation and high attrition rates, yet scholars say these students have often been overlooked in wider discussions about equity gaps in higher education. But more attention is being paid to their unique challenges as higher ed leaders nationwide focus more on improving academic outcomes for underrepresented students on their campuses and collect better research and data about their needs.
Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are members of more than 20 ethnic groups indigenous to islands in the Pacific. More than half of those who live in the U.S. never attended college, according to a 2020 report by APIA Scholars, a nonprofit focused on academic success among Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. Of those who enroll, many don’t complete their degrees—half of Native Hawaiians, more than 58 percent of Samoans and 54 percent of Tongans who attended college left without graduating.
Pearl Imada Iboshi, who directs the Institutional Research and Analysis Office at the University of Hawai‘i system, said campus leaders noticed that degree attainment rates were especially low among their Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students and among Filipino students, a major immigrant group in the state.
Only 10.6 percent of Native Hawaiians or people who are part-Hawaiian, 11.5 percent of Pacific Islanders and 18 percent of Filipinos over the age of 25 in the state had earned an associate degree or higher, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data.
“We really are focusing on trying to reduce that gap,” Iboshi said.
To aid that effort, the Lumina Foundation gifted the University of Hawai‘i system $575,000 to increase the share of Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Filipinos earning college credentials in the state, according to an announcement by the foundation earlier this month. The university aims to raise attainment rates by five percentage points across these groups in the next four years. The grant is part of the Talent, Innovation, and Equity Partnership, a Lumina Foundation program that works to boost the number of residents pursuing and completing college credentials in specific states.
“We are grateful to Lumina Foundation for this timely and remarkable opportunity to strengthen our work to increase education equity in Hawaiʻi through a greater data-informed focus on populations that have historically been marginalized and boosting the associated educational outcomes,” University of Hawai‘i president David Lassner said in a press release.
The University of Hawai‘i plans to use the funds to develop a strategic plan that centers improving academic outcomes for these student groups. Some of the grant money will support engaging with local employers to develop better academic pathways to high-demand jobs. It will also fund the work of Hawai‘i P-20, a partnership of education and business leaders and state policy makers that set a goal to ensure that 55 percent of working-age adults in the state have a degree or credential by 2025. The university also plans to expand professional development opportunities for faculty members to learn how to teach Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Filipino and other minority students in more culturally responsive ways.
The move is in line with efforts already underway at the university to provide more courses in Native Hawaiian languages, culture and history to attract and retain more Native Hawaiian students.
“Student success really starts at the classroom,” Iboshi said.
Data from the Lumina Foundation show 50.7 percent of Hawaii residents, ages 25 to 64, hold a college degree or credential, slightly lagging behind the national average of 51.9 percent. Only 11.6 percent of Hawaii residents in that age range had earned an associate degree and 23.3 percent held a bachelor’s degree in 2019.
Iboshi noted that Native Hawaiians experienced a “sharp decrease” in enrollment in the University of Hawai‘i system during the pandemic, which worried her and her colleagues. Enrollment of Native Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian students fell from 7,307 students to 7,030 between fall 2019 and fall 2021, a 3.8 percent drop.
“We’re definitely trying to reverse that decline and really push forward,” she said. Native Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians make up about 20 percent of the state population, so she believes the decline likely contributes to workforce shortages in the state amid the pandemic, including in fields such as teaching, nursing and information technology.
Amanda DeLaRosa, strategy officer for state policy at Lumina, said the pandemic wreaked havoc on Hawaii’s economy and created an “immediate need and clear opportunity” to focus on education disparities in the state.
“Their industries were thrown into upheaval, as they kind of rely on tourism and hospitality,” she said. “And they learned that their Native Hawaiian Indigenous communities in particular were oftentimes trapped in these occupations that were not leading to family-sustaining wages.”
Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders disproportionately come from low-income households. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 14.8 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the country live at the federal poverty level compared to 9 percent of white Americans. The unemployment rate for these groups was 5.9 percent in 2019, compared to 3.7 percent for their white counterparts.
Robert Teranishi, the Morgan and Helen Chu Endowed Chair in Asian American Studies and a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an email that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders face many of the same barriers as rural students. These challenges include a “lack of access to information, knowledge and resources” about how to navigate college, “lower rates of intergenerational mobility, and a lack of proximity to higher education institutions.”
He noted that these students are concentrated in colleges and universities in Hawaii and the Pacific islands and Asian American and Native American–Pacific Islander–serving Institutions in other states.
“An important way to understand the NHPI student experience is through the lens of migration,” he said. “There is a lot of movement of NHPI students between institutions in the U.S. Pacific islands, as well as from the Pacific to the continental U.S.” As a result, “there is a need for more attention to and resources for” both kinds of institutions to help these students succeed academically.
He also noted that there’s a historical lack of awareness in higher ed about the needs of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders because of a lack of clear data. Federal data categorized Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders as Asian until the Office of Management and Budget required that the population be given its own classification in 1997. Now colleges and universities are required to report enrollment data for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders separately from those of Asian students to the federal government, but “this does not mean that colleges will actually report or use this information on an institutional level,” he said. Even after that change in standards, a “severe undercount” of these students continues, because they disproportionately belong to two or more races and frequently end up in the “two or more races” category in data sets, even if they also identify as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
The long-standing perception of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders as just another subcategory of Asians, and the practice of including them in Asian student outcomes data, continues to obscure significant disparities, said Kirin A. Macapugay, vice chair of the higher education committee of the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs, which advises the governor’s office and state Legislature on the needs of these communities.
For example, she pointed to a recent report by the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based organization focused on closing equity gaps in education, which found that only 22 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander adults in California held a bachelor’s degree compared to 59 percent of Asian Americans. However, she said studies that differentiate between these ethnic categories are rare.
When Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are treated as an Asian subgroup, they’re also subjected to the model minority myth, or the false assumption that all Asian American communities are socioeconomically and academically thriving compared to other minority groups, said Macapugay, who is also lead professor of human services at San Diego City College and a member of the Southwestern Community College District Board of Trustees.
“Because our Pacific Islander students are lumped in with the rest of us, their voices, their cries don’t get heard,” she said. “You have whole communities that frankly feel invisible because of this model minority myth that all AAPIs are doing well. And that’s not true. There’s a lot of struggle, there’s a lot of variance and socioeconomic disparities. It’s like screaming at the top of your lungs and nobody hears you.”